Davos Diary, Day 2: Snowy arrival

Swiss Image/World Economic Forum It was snowing in Davos Tuesday as I drove to my base for the week, the cozy Klosters apartment of my New York friends Truman Bidwell and Mariam Azarm. Traffic thickened on the icy roads, and I nearly failed to make it on time for my first panel, a session with ...

596941_Davos15_05.jpg
596941_Davos15_05.jpg

Swiss Image/World Economic Forum

It was snowing in Davos Tuesday as I drove to my base for the week, the cozy Klosters apartment of my New York friends Truman Bidwell and Mariam Azarm. Traffic thickened on the icy roads, and I nearly failed to make it on time for my first panel, a session with the “Young Global Leaders” (YGLs) of the “Asian Century.” This panel was not quite Davos, since the World Economic Forum officially begins Wednesday and since this panel was taking place not in Davos but in Klosters, 20 minutes away. But it was also very much in what the Forum likes to call “the spirit of Davos.”

The YGLs are the latest iteration of what the Forum used to hail as “Global Leaders of Tomorrow,” bright overachievers under 40 who have already shown the kind of promise that makes their prospects of leadership a fairly safe bet. There were 120 YGLs assembled in Klosters to hear three Indians and a Singaporean of Indian origin discuss whether the “Asian Century” was fact or fiction. The debate was lively enough, and the questions from the YGLs (two of whom identified themselves as parliamentarians) flowed fast-but-not-furious, so the session ran comfortably over the allotted 90 minutes. Some predictable things were said, but some startling insights emerged as well, and the panelists’ metaphors became increasingly inventive.

Swiss Image/World Economic Forum

It was snowing in Davos Tuesday as I drove to my base for the week, the cozy Klosters apartment of my New York friends Truman Bidwell and Mariam Azarm. Traffic thickened on the icy roads, and I nearly failed to make it on time for my first panel, a session with the “Young Global Leaders” (YGLs) of the “Asian Century.” This panel was not quite Davos, since the World Economic Forum officially begins Wednesday and since this panel was taking place not in Davos but in Klosters, 20 minutes away. But it was also very much in what the Forum likes to call “the spirit of Davos.”

The YGLs are the latest iteration of what the Forum used to hail as “Global Leaders of Tomorrow,” bright overachievers under 40 who have already shown the kind of promise that makes their prospects of leadership a fairly safe bet. There were 120 YGLs assembled in Klosters to hear three Indians and a Singaporean of Indian origin discuss whether the “Asian Century” was fact or fiction. The debate was lively enough, and the questions from the YGLs (two of whom identified themselves as parliamentarians) flowed fast-but-not-furious, so the session ran comfortably over the allotted 90 minutes. Some predictable things were said, but some startling insights emerged as well, and the panelists’ metaphors became increasingly inventive.

India’s minister of commerce and industry, Kamal Nath, deserved a prize for this one: “We were passengers on the [global economic] bus; we didn’t drive it, we didn’t make the bus, and we had no idea where it was going. Now we want to control the steering wheel and choose the right road.” Or on shared responsibility for climate change: “We’re not at the head table, but we have the same menu.” Nath has just published a book called India’s Century, and fellow panelist Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, has one coming out titled The New Asian Hemisphere. Perhaps they now need to do another panel titled “The Indian Hemisphere”!

Swiss Image/World Economic Forum

I spent the rest of the afternoon getting organized, taking the bus to Davos to register and pick up the Forum briefcase, which was loaded to the gills with conference materials and most important of all, the indispensable badge without which movement anywhere in Davos this week would be impossible. The badge hasn’t changed much in appearance since I first came here 11 years ago, but it’s acquired the properties of a “smart card” now and stores all sorts of information, from your photograph to the sessions you’ve signed up for. It’s color-coded (participants wear a white one, aides get green, spouses pink, staff blue), and participants of ministerial rank are further identified by a shiny disc.

The caste system in Davos is an elaborate one, the various gradations of privilege governing levels of access to panels, rooms, and facilities. That was as I remembered it; but what has undoubtedly worsened, in terms of both ubiquity and pointlessness, is security. There were more security personnel around than participants, and they specialized in the unnecessary restrictions so beloved of security people everywhere: You could not alight from a vehicle except where they said you could; you could not walk on a certain side of the street; and you had to take your jackets off and go through a metal detector every time you passed the Congress Center, even if you didn’t want to go in. I nearly missed the last shuttle bus home to Klosters because the walk to the bus stop went past the center and I was obliged to make a detour to be frisked. Only security people can explain the logic of stopping a person hurrying down the street in order to oblige him to go where he doesn’t need to so that you can scan his body parts for weapons he wouldn’t have had a chance to use if you hadn’t stopped him in the first place.

Swiss Image/World Economic Forum

The first of Davos’s plethora of receptions took place on Tuesday, the welcome reception hosted by the genial Prof. Schwab, who had started it all back in 1971. Old friends were hailed, new acquaintances made and soon forgot. Participants milled about in a swirling, eddying throng, badges hanging obligatorily from their necks, while waiters circulated with trays of canapés, mainly featuring dried meat. Some of the guests may well have felt like dried meat themselves, as others stole surreptitious glances at the names and colors on their badges to decide if their wearers were worth talking to or not (most often not). The only cheerful faces at the reception seemed to belong to those who had got out of the stock market before the current nose dive.

The World Economic Forum doesn’t officially start until Wednesday, but I have already slipped and fallen on the ice once, been searched three times, and lost a glove somewhere in the slush. It can only get better.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of nine books, including India: From Midnight to the Millennium (New York: Arcade, 1997) and, most recently, Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Literature, Writing, and Writers (New York: Arcade, 2005).

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