There is a world of difference between a lobbyist, government liaison person, public relations manager, information trader and those who engage in corporate espionage: a New Delhi-based lobbyist.
Whoever said this is living in the past. Today, I am the all-in-one lethal combo who does all of the above. But let me not digress. My day starts at 5 am. My boss can do with three hours of sleep. I realised it was his call as I groped for my three mobiles to figure out which one was ringing. He was livid.
“Why haven’t you got that Cabinet note on the forthcoming auction of oil and gas blocks? It was supposed to be on my table last evening.” Half asleep, I fumbled for the right answer. “Yesterday, the gang tried to steal it, but for some reason there was additional security. It will be done tonight.”
He got furious. “It is those two peons in the ministry, the two brothers, right. They can never do anything on time. It is time we found educated clerks to do the jobs. We can pay more than the Rs 20,000-30,000 we pay the peons.” I explained: “I manage several gangs, who operate in different wings of the ministry. My juniors have their own gangs, who separately report to them. We need this multi-gang hierarchy so that we don’t miss out on any paper. This acts as risk mitigation; if we don’t get the documents from the bureaucrats, the gangs help us send them a message that we have other sources.”
This was an art we learnt from the late Dhirubhai Ambani, the patriarch of the Reliance Group. He said it wasn’t enough to have an internal team to track the government. One required multiple sources, both internal and external, within and outside the government, in the various corporate camps, both friends and enemies, even in NGOs. At his peak, the revered Dhirubhai, our guru, could access documents directly from ministers and secretaries, even the Cabinet secretary. But he still maintained a wider network.
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Before him, things were corrupt, yet simple and straightforward. A lobbyist knew a few officials personally and dug out information. Cash payments were rare and minuscule. The peons, section officers and joint secretaries were paid in kind — send their family on a domestic holiday, provide a taxi to take someone’s mother’s ashes to Haridwar, part-finance a marriage in the family. Senior ones were paid accordingly — finance their children’s education abroad, arrange an international holiday and give them money for shopping.
Let me tell you this anecdote about another businessman, who procured draft policies from the Cabinet secretary. One day, he got a frantic call; the Cabinet secretary wanted him to go through a specific draft and suggest changes in it, as the Cabinet was about to meet in an hour to finalise it. In those days, documents were sent on faxes. Then they came as soft copies on email. However, things have changed now. Senior officials are cagey to dole out written information; faxes and emails have become dangerous. Now, we use minions like peons and clerks in the ministries. Some of them allow our gangs to break into their offices. Others steal the papers themselves, slip them into empty cigarette packets and leave them at the paanwallahs outside the ministries.
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By the time I was ready, it was 7.30. I rushed for a breakfast meet at India Habitat Centre’s library lounge. How times have changed. Two decades ago, I worked for the same boss, but my office was the lobby of Taj Mansingh Hotel. I would reach there at 8 and conduct all my meetings in the hotel’s café, restaurants and lounges. Then it got conspicuous; every Jill, Jane and Mary used the same place. I shifted to the members-only area at the Oberoi’s. It became crowded. I shifted to the more middle-class meeting points — Khan Market’s Café Turtle, Habitat’s lounge, iic’s annexe — and changed them regularly.
At breakfast, I met a relative of a chief minister, who ran the CM’s office. On the agenda was nothing serious, just to exchange political gossip, movements of key bureaucrats, who slept with whom and what was happening in the corridors of power. This was the liaison part of the job. The objective was to keep in touch with politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, lawyers, crooks and relatives of powerful individuals. It was painful but one had to do it. Half my day is wasted in this manner. But sometimes one hit the bull’s eye. A trickle of crucial and sensitive information is revealed. In addition, the gossip allows us to strike conversations with strangers at social dos.
At 9.30, I was at a seminar, which we secretly sponsored to change an existing law. One of our group’s businesses was to manufacture solar panels in a 40:60 joint venture (JV) with a PSU. The majority owner, a State-owned entity, was piqued about the surge of cheap solar panel imports from China. The JV wanted the government to impose an anti-dumping duty on them to safeguard the interests of local manufacturers. The seminar, whose participants included government officials, aimed to reinforce this idea. Before this event, we had distributed a ‘white paper’ and organised lectures on the issue.
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The ministry of new and renewable energy had told us that it had a win-win solution in mind. The government had allocated Rs 10,000 crore for renewable energy; the bulk of the contracts for the solar panels under this scheme would go to the PSUs and our JV. Meanwhile, the other users of the panels could continue to import from China. Hence, there was no need for an anti-dumping duty. We were urged to withdraw our plea. But we still wished to put more pressure, just in case the government changed its mind later.
In fact, this was a process that we followed whenever new policies were finalised. Before the final policy, we circulate white papers, manage a barrage of articles in newspapers and organise seminars, lectures and PowerPoint presentations to key officials and ministers. The boss meets crucial ministers, including the prime minister, to put across his viewpoint. The decision-making process is monitored to ensure that nothing is included that can adversely impact us.
I was back in the office for a bite. My hubby had packed sandwiches. It was time to energise the private detectives. The boss was in the midst of a family feud, a sibling rivalry with his younger brother, who demanded that he should get an equal share of the Rs 100,000 crore business empire. We didn’t want to give a huge slice to the playboy brother. I had hired detectives to dig up dirt on him. The sleuths roamed the cities, stayed in shady hotels and drank cheap booze as they tried to get documents that could muddy the image of our adversary.
Next was an important meeting. RS was a critical cog in our lobbying apparatus. He was close to people in the CBI, ED (Enforcement Directorate), DRI (Department of Revenue Intelligence), income tax and customs departments, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) and IB (Intelligence Bureau). He was used for typical operations. We would write anonymous letters against our enemies, or those we wanted ‘fixed’, which detailed cooked-up or real charges related to national security, money laundering and tax evasion. RS would circulate them and force some of these agencies to initiate investigations. Files would open, news would be leaked to the media and that was it. Clean, simple and sure.
Remember that the phone-tapping incident in the infamous Niira Radia case was prompted by a complaint to the finance ministry that she had “within a span of nine years built up a business empire worth Rs 300 crore, that she was an agent of foreign intelligence agencies, and that she was indulging in anti-national activities”? It was on this basis that the ministry ordered phone taps as the issues concerned “national unity and integrity, state security, etc”. (Radia was the lobbyist for two of the most powerful business groups in the country — Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group and the Tata Group of Ratan Tata.)
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In 2004-05, when the two Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, fought publicly, a similar complaint was leaked against the lobbyist for the younger brother. The anonymous letter alleged that he was a CIA agent, used the Ambani moneybags to seduce and honey-trap politicians and bureaucrats, and then get them to do whatever he wished to. He could walk into any government office without an appointment.
The late afternoon was the time for the dreary work — use MPs to achieve our ends. For years, we had three strategies to involve the elected MPs in our lobbying activities. For instance, some of us had access to the signed forms from MPs close to us that enabled us to ask questions in the Lok Sabha. We had to fill up the forms and submit them to the Lok Sabha secretariat. When the minister answered them, we would use the information to plan our business strategies and glean facts about our competitors and enemies. Sometimes, we used their signed letterheads to highlight our concerns and issues. Finally, MPs would place our versions in several Parliament debates.
Remember the 2005 cash-for-query sting, which claimed that parliamentarians received cash to ask questions? Eleven MPs were expelled from the two Houses. However, we didn’t operate on a question-by-question basis. We used their letters and forms when we required. It was a more efficient system. It was what we learnt in the 1970s and ’80s during the height of several corporate wars — Ambani vs Wadia, Chhabria vs Chhabria, Swraj Paul vs Nanda, etc.
By the evening, I turned my attention to the media. Most days, there were queries that had to be answered. The few select journalists who were on our payroll needed exclusives so that they could get their bylines in the next day’s newspapers. Television journos were a pain — they wanted a byte or two every minute in the race to air as many ‘breaking news’ as possible in 24 hours. All this required meticulous planning. Who should be given what leaks (documents) in what format? Rarely were the entire sets given; invariably, select pages that may embarrass our competitors and enemies were handed out. This was the cat-and-mouse of selective media leaks. I was a master of it.
Then there were the usual requests from friendly hacks. Someone wanted a car to go to Mussoorie. A second wanted to travel to Dubai; we had to pay the money for her trip and shopping. A third’s son was off to the US for higher studies; he needed an interest-free and non-refundable loan. We had an annual budget, and a substantial amount of petty cash, to deal with such demands. In rare cases, we would give the friendlies discounted shares in our group companies. The rise in valuation would help them earn windfall profits.
It is sundown — time for a few drinks after a hectic day. A politician had invited me to a party; I had to show my face. It was the ideal place to meet new faces; they may later become an integral part of our network, share titbits and relax. As I left the party at night, there was another urgent task. In some of the influential newspapers, we had people who sent the finalised front page of the next day’s edition, or a copy of any article that mentioned our group. Thus, we could preview them and ask for changes, if required. It also helped prove my worth to the boss.
As they say, we were lobbyists but we also dealt with tomorrow’s news today.