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India joins the Swiss set

Brand India was on full display at the just concluded World Economic Forum in Davos. The message being tom-tommed: India is fast shifting from being a low-cost economy to a high-value one

india Updated: Jan 31, 2006 02:06 IST
Platform | Suhel Seth
Platform | Suhel Seth

The Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held last week in Davos, was to my mind, the most significant recognition and acceptance of India: both as an economic powerhouse and as a country that people have come to love and admire. Brand India is finally out of the closet and into the minds of those who matter. Which is why the Annual Meeting was a great place to showcase the benefits of this brand.

Leading the Indian delegation was P. Chidambaram, whom I would rate as among the finest finance ministers that India has ever had. It is quite another matter that despite all the praise I shower, the service tax on advertising will never go. But Chidambaram was the star of Davos from a political perspective. He brought a lot of stature to everything he took part in. His erudition was acclaimed by almost everyone and this is the kind of political leadership that India needs and deserves.

In almost every session that Chidambaram spoke at, there was a silent confidence which comes out of deep conviction coupled with remarkable insights and am glad that Chidambaram was the one who was leading the Indian delegation although it would be unfair not to mention two of his colleagues who were remarkable themselves: both Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Kamal Nath added shades of intellectual vigour to a real power-packed Indian delegation. But the Indian delegation had other stars as well. From the world of industry, there were two. Mukesh Ambani was the co-chair of the Annual Meeting which means he was sharing this honour with global greats such as the chairman of Nestle and Martin Sorrell of WPP and it does not get bigger than this. It really doesn’t.

And then there was Nandan Nilekani the mastermind of the India Everywhere campaign. It is another matter that Nandan’s Infosys also hosted the most amazing reception at Davos where almost 30 out of the world’s top Fortune 100 company CEOs were present. Mukesh Ambani projected the sombre and depth of this new India and as the co-chair put India on the map instantly. The fact that Mukesh has made it to the global high-table is something that we need to celebrate.

There was an electric atmosphere about India’s presence. And it was well-orchestrated. Buses with ‘India Everywhere’ to Indian Happy Hours with Kingfisher beer all made for an amazing marketing exercise and this is what our country needs. For far too long, we have been extremely apologetic about almost everything we do.

Davos is a milestone in India’s journey towards economic recognition and it is a real pity that the prime minister could not make it. As I said to Vikram Chandra of NDTV, India’s Dream Team at Davos left its captain behind in Delhi. Perhaps to sort out minor issues such as cabinet reshuffles and Buta Singh.

But there were other Indian stars as well: N.K. Singh was arguably the most loved and easily the most popular among anyone I know. He was right out there at almost every exclusive reception. In addition, he hosted a private dinner at Klosters which had the world’s most powerful breaking some fine bread together. I do recall, when he invited me to the dinner, I believed it would be one infested with more of the same but was delighted that among those who were present were the former foreign minister of Japan, Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, Strobe Talbott, the global CEOs of both Ernst & Young and Boston Consulting Group, P. Chidambaram, Kamal Nath, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and then Mukesh and Nita Ambani, Anand and Anu Mahindra and Naina and Sunil Mittal. In fact, our table was easily having the most fun at this dinner. But more than the dinner, the speeches at the dinner made by some of these honchos said two things: one that N.K. Singh has done more for India’s brand image than most bureaucrats and in fact Chidambaram even alluded to that in his speech at the dinner and that apart, he has ensured that the World Economic Forum recognises India’s new role and place in the comity of nations.

The Diva of Davos was Parmeshwar Godrej. I have said this before and will say it again, there’s no one more glamorous, more with it and more connected than Parmesh. I noticed that at the India Reception where she did not budge from where she was standing and forced me to do the same.

Everyone from Chidambaram to the Uniliver chief to the Sara Lee chief came by and paid the lady their salaams. Which is why it is such fun to have Parmeshwar at these events. This is equally and important part of national branding and am glad that India has a Parmeshwar though we could do with more.

Even though the style honours easily belonged to Vijay Mallya: apart from world leaders such as Clinton and their ilk, he was the only one to fly down to Davos in a chopper (normal people have to drive from Zurich) was in Davos for just a day and then flew out in his private plane to have dinner with his son and mother in London.

The softer side of India showcased people ranging from Shabana Azmi who was feted with the Crystal Award to Usha Uthup who took me back to the days of Trincas. There were elephant carvings on dining tables and India posters on the promenade. Not to mention the amazing spread that The Taj Group of Hotels laid out on the final night. For five days, India was truly everywhere and what is more everyone only had positive things to say about us. No matter what we do at home with the Buta Singhs and Bofors, the world outside is seeing us with renewed respect and that is some achievement.

On my part, I believe there needs to be greater coordination between those who run our country and those who run our businesses. One Mukesh Ambani achieved more in showcasing India than any high-blitz advertising campaign could have and this is something we need to recognise. The brand building at Davos is the kind we need. To shift the focus away from us being a low-cost economy to one that is high-value.

The kind of business leadership we showcased in Davos makes one proud of being an Indian. The manner in which we projected the virtues about the federalism we enjoy needs to be saluted. There were three chief ministers who came here too. The presentation by Sheila Dikshit at the Japanese Dinner only enhanced the respect that many have begun to have even for local leadership.

I had a full five days: listening to people as varied as Bono to Hamid Karzai, from Bill Gates to Jaggi Vasudev, from President Musharraf to President Obasanjo, and all I can say is no matter what rigours of life you have to face in Davos (minus 17 degrees Celsius), it is still the world’s most powerful collection of business, political and thought leaders.

And it is at Davos last week, that the Indian flag flew with might and zest.

First Published: Jan 31, 2006 02:06 IST