A powerful influencer drawn out of shadows
If you knew too much about Niira Radia before last week, it would mean she hadn’t been doing her job as a corporate lobbyist properly. But last week, we were told enough about her. And if the allegations published in the media from transcripts of her phone conversations are to be believed, she wasn’t doing a ‘proper’ job at all.
Radia, a British passport-holder and the 50-something divorcee and mother of three sons, who spent some of her early years in Kenya, was always a good multi-tasker. After her marriage with London-based financial consultant Janak Radia collapsed, she came to India in 1995 and worked for Sahara India Airlines before floating her own public relations and consultancy firms.
As chairperson of Vaishnavi Corporate Communications Pvt Ltd, she now handles media and ‘environment management’ for top-notch companies that include the Tata Group, Unitech, the Star Group of channels, Vedanta and HCL Infosystems. She set up another firm, Neucomm Consulting, in November 2008 to manage the media affairs of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited. A third, Noesis, officially comprises of retired bureaucrats but is largely controlled by Radia herself.
So how did someone who heads companies that provide strategic consulting to companies in telecom, power, aviation and infrastructure, get involved in alleged wheeling-dealings with Union Telecom Minister A. Raja? Well, manning the crossroads where big business and politics constantly zip across each other is what she does as a profession. In the jargon of her business, she operates in the cloud-covered arena of ‘environment management’.
Radia handled the political and media management of the failed Nano project of Tata Motors in Singur, West Bengal, its fall-out and the Nano plant’s subsequent shifting to Gujarat. This included managing relations with important Left Front and trade union leaders, with several of whom she is said to be friendly.
The crunch, of course, came when Radia was accused last week of having influenced Raja in the 2008 allocation of 2G licences and spectrum of mobile phones in a manner that provided the government exchequer Rs 60,000-100,000 crore less than it could have if the deal was conducted fair and square. And to make matters worse, the ongoing investigations now point to the fact that the beneficiaries of the ‘scam’ included firms that were Radia’s clients.
Radia could not be reached for comment. An assistant answered her mobile phone and said she was busy. The CEO of Vaishnavi later wrote to say she was busy and would be available next week.
But it’s not only ‘lobbying with a cause’ that has got Radia into the last place where a lobbyist would like to be seen: the headlines. Her firm Crownmart International Group Limited, registered in the tax haven of the Channel Islands, reportedly tried to get a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to start a domestic private airline called Crown Express. Though the venture never took off, Crownmart got a clearance from the Foreign Investment Promotion Board for foreign investment worth more than Rs 100 crore. Radia, during this time, was known to be close to former Civil Aviation minister Ananth Kumar of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
“My experience with her is that she is a thorough professional,” says Pradip Baijal, former chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and one of the directors of Noesis. Her employees say she gets in the trenches with her teams when the going is tough. “During the Tata Motors crisis in Singur she was with the team at the site for more than a month,” a loyal employee said.
But getting into the trenches can get one’s hands dirty. Which is what Radia now has to deal with as she lobbies for the client of her lifetime: herself.