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Bad messengers can spoil the party

February 02, 2005

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not attend last week's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos.

It is reasonable to assume that the organisers of the world's most powerful business and government leaders would have been very keen on having him as one of the key speakers.

It is also possible that the organisers may have made discreet inquiries with the Prime Minister's office and they may not have got a positive response.

Irrespective of whether Manmohan Singh was approached or not, it is perhaps politically astute of him not to have gone to Davos.

For the same reason, it would be na´ve to fret about why he lost such an opportunity even as Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz had a field day at Davos and moved from one session to the other waxing eloquent on the merits of reforms, thereby raising Pakistan's profile at such a prestigious international forum.

The political environment in India cannot be compared with what prevails in Pakistan. If Dr Singh had decided to go to Davos, that itself would have become a political controversy for easy exploitation by the Left parties.

Shaukat Aziz does not have such problems. In politics, it pays to be astute and pragmatic.

Dr Singh also chose not to attend the India Economic Summit, organised by the WEF and the Confederation of Indian Industry in December 2004.

But he attended the CII partnership summit held a few weeks later and made major policy announcements that pleased the foreign investors. There was no controversy.

If he had made the same announcement at the India Economic Summit, all hell would have broken loose with the Left parties alleging that the nation had been sold to the foreign investors.

If Dr Singh cannot attend an important annual international event like the one at Davos for valid political reasons, it becomes all the more important that the exercise to nominate a government representative to present India's case before global business leaders at such a forum is undertaken with greater care.

Finance Minister P Chidambaram would have been an ideal candidate. Apparently, the forthcoming Budget was cited as the reason for not nominating him.

But finance ministers have come to Davos even with a Budget due to be presented in four weeks. As finance minister in the United Front government, Mr Chidambaram himself went to Davos in 1997 and then presented that "dream budget".

None of the business leaders had any clue of what the finance minister had in mind when they met him then. If Budget secrets could be kept then, there is no reason why the same discipline would be beyond the same person eight years later.

And if Mr Chidambaram was not available for some other reason, surely there was Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

Why wasn't he nominated by the government? Mr Ahluwalia holds the rank of cabinet minister and can credibly defend and explain the Indian government's policies to global business leaders.

This is not to argue that Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, who was eventually asked to lead the Indian delegation at Davos, is not a good choice.

The point is a commerce minister is not the best candidate to explain and defend the government's fiscal and macro economic policies to a foreign audience.

While Mr Nath may have proved to be an astute negotiator during the World Trade Organisation trade talks, macro economic policies are clearly not his forte.

Worse, Mr Nath forgot that attempts at scoring points against one's political rivals at an international forum could be counterproductive.

At the traditional India Meeting, Mr Nath needlessly got embroiled in an exchange of words with Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje over whose party had a greater claim to the credit of having launched the reforms process in India.

The few foreign investors who attended that luncheon meeting must have gone home a little bewildered.

Even on the question of labour reforms, Mr Nath talked about the freedom that states could be given to frame their own flexible labour laws.

Ms Raje made no secret of her disenchantment over the proposal, saying that the Centre must introduce labour law reforms and bell the cat. For the foreign investors, the message on reforms was, thus, very confusing.

The short point is the prime minister should insist on nominating only those representatives at such global fora who can rise above party politics and present a cohesive and credible picture of India's reforms programme and its future.

There is no need to hide the reality. But a display of domestic political differences between parties is not called for at such meetings. That is a spectacle India can do without.

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