City City Bang Bang, Columns

The New Melas for the Moneyed

Every year, we get to see a bunch of spiffily dressed anchors interview a set of spiffily dressed business leaders against a backdrop of snow. The occasion is the annual picnic for the truly well heeled that goes under the name of the World Economic Forum and takes place in Davos.

The people on both side of the microphone remain more or less the same as do the subjects of their conversations. But that does not stop the channels concerned from issuing hourly updates on the latest from the fur-lined trenches.

Looking back on the last few years, it is difficult to think of anything vastly significant that happened at Davos, but by now this annual trip has been pencilled in the calendars of the journalists involved and besides, what will they do with all those designer winter clothes?

At one level, the Indian media interest in Davos is understandable for it is an important showcase event for countries from emerging market. The congregation of world leaders of all hues make this a power bazaar of considerable importance and it is natural for media to go where the powerful do. And yet, as Swapan Dasgupta points out in his column in this newspaper, not only does the annual Davos jamboree raise questions about why the same interviews could not be carried out with Indian business leaders in India but also begin to work against the country as the gap between verbiage and action continues to grow.

But at an even more fundamental level, the reason for looking at the annual Davos outing with some suspicion comes from the fact that we seem to have an irrational fascination for all forms of ornamental melas, particularly where we get to hang out with the rich, famous and the well dressed.

Something similar is happening with the Jaipur Literary Festival. Starting off as a small gathering of the literary minded, it has today, by virtue of some expert curation and inventive marketing, become an event of monstrous scale. The people it attracts today are of all kinds and some of them continue to be interested in literature. But for most, the Jaipur festival has become a Davos-on-the-cheap, where the primary motivation is to be present, to be seen to be present and breathe in the heady fumes that the famous emit. That is not to say that the event no longer has any literary merit, but merely that by now what surrounds the festival is more significant than what the content that it contains.

And then are sundry award shows, film premieres, art summits, marathons and leadership conclaves where the same phenomenon is at work. Every year the same people converge on these and kiss the air around each other’s cheeks in rotation and get photographs clicked with each other, dressed in event-appropriate costumes. Each of these events is breathlessly covered by media , in fact most of them are created by media houses and it is no accident that the most airtime in these shows is taken up by sundry anchors who well, anchor the show. The awards shows in particular carry virtually no weight and are transparent devices to promote a small group of people, who take turns in receiving these and giving speeches about leadership and vision.

Perhaps these are harmless affectations; after all if we think of these as fancy dress parties for the grown-up, we could perhaps learn to look upon them with benign indulgence.

However, perhaps there is something deeper at work here. The creation of a self-contained cocoon inhabited by the important serves to operate as a subtle and often insidious form of seduction that gradually consumes those who seek to consume it. We saw that at work when we heard the Radia tapes; it was clear that the lure of hanging out with the powerful rubs off on those who ostensibly seek to question them. The media has over the years, unbeknownst to itself, defected to the other side and it has done so largely so that it could wear better clothes and get to have important people on their speed-dials. The breathless and uncritical coverage of these events make the media unwitting accomplices when they should instead be open-minded but critical observers.

The overall climate of self-congratulation and the unwavering interest in making India look good to the outside world has made the media agents rather than auditors of the political and commercial establishment.

More importantly, jamborees of this kind slowly suck the original meaning out of these events. The event itself imposes an internal logic of its own for it must keep upping the ante year on year. It needs to become larger and more spectacular and it can only do so by getting in bigger ticket names and ever larger crowds. It must become a ritual that does not require thinking about; it must be attended regardless of what happens there. Over a period of time the primary concern becomes cast in terms of who else attended rather than what it was fundamentally about.

Nothing seduces as magnificently as scale. Our perpetual quest for personal significance means that we seek out the neighbourhood of those that are already significant. In India, particularly, we are going through a phase where we are dazzled by all those that glitter. Our obsession with attending global economic events, literary festivals, art summits and film award shows might have indicated that we are taking greater interest in the finer things in life. Instead what they probably show is that our greatest lies in the figure that appears in the mirror. In a designer suit of course.