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Under their influence

India’s top lobbyists - They are not just cloak’n’dagger operators and shady ‘fixers’. They are also people invested with the power to connect and convince, push and pull for policies that government and corporates will implement
Hindustan Times | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON MAY 08, 2010 11:05 PM IST

The word ‘lobbyist’ has an ominous ring about it. The image of a safari-suited man with an attache meeting a client in a run-down government guest-house or hotel may have been replaced by a smarter version of a BlackBerryed gent at the bar of a swanky five-star, but ‘lobbyist’ still suggests a shadowy operator, a ‘fixer’, a Machiavellian backroom powerhorse making deals, breaking them and remaking them till the last loophole in the law has been covered with plaster.

But that’s just one kind of player moving about in the backrooms and lobbies of power. The fact remains: as in any other profession, the practice of lobbying — facilitating deals between individuals or organisations, convincing through argument, influence, intrigue or something even less palatable — can be done in three ways: the straight way, the crooked way and the straight-crooked way. When during the Rajya Sabha debate on April 29 on the phone tapping-2G spectrum allocation issue BJP MP and leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley spoke about “the art of persuading the government to take a particular decision” (in the case he was mentioning, the allocation of the telecom ministry to A. Raja), he was not only criticising shady means of persuasion but he was also lobbying against lobbyists.

In response, Home Minister P Chidam-baram made a larger point while arguing that “simply because two people are reported to have discussed who should be minister... does not mean that the prime minister does not make the cabinet”. It was this: “What is the place of lobbyists in Indian democracy?” He went on to mention how in the United States, there are registered lobbyists (approximately 17,000 in Washington DC alone) and how he knows of one former US Secretary of State and one former US Secretary of Defence who are registered lobbyists. Chidambaram put the word-that-cannot-be-spoken out there for all to see, adding that India crossed out ‘middlemen’ in our defence purchases from the lexicon not because middlemen don’t exist but because “we are frightened by these middlemen”.

The same phobia continues to exist in 2010 India when it comes to lobbyists — influencers, convincers, facilitators, brokers, call them what you will. What the people profiled on these pages are called is not important. What is, is the fact that they are men and women of influence, whose skills at pushing and pulling for a policy or action is implemented by government, business houses and political parties.

Urban legend has it when American general Ulysses S. Grant, arrived in Washington, he was first welcomed at the Willard Hotel. After a busy day, he would often find peace in the hotel’s lobby. As Washington’s rich and powerful got to hear of Grant’s fondness for the Willard’s lobby, many would-be power brokers would approach him to push their cases. Grant is said to have tagged these visitors as ‘lobbyists’.

As in the other urban myth of the lobbyist, the origin of the word, too, remains in our collective memory waiting to be challenged.

Dilip Cherian, 54 Consulting Partner, Perfect Relations

the former Business India editor brought in sophistication and glamour into the PR profession, which till his entry was tacky or shadowy, or both. Sensing the huge opportunities in corporate communications as multinationals clamoured to rush into India, he set up Perfect Relations with his friend Bobby Kewalramani in 1992, notably from Shibu Soren’s official residence. Cherian’s biggest coup came when British American Tobacco (BAT) was unsuccessful in acquiring tobacco giant ITC in which he played a stellar role in enhancing the perception of his client, ITC. He is also credited with lobbying for an import duty cut on inputs for packaging material. Milk-sellers complain about cartons being too expensive. Dilip pushed for import duty reduction, milk-sellers were happy, and packaging giant TetraPack, Dilip’s client, the happiest.

Amar Singh, 54 Member of Rajya Sabha

Amar Singh has left his mark in politics, films, the corporate world... and the mark has not always been without a sticky trail. The Azamgarh-born Singh rapidly climbed the political ladder once he moved from Calcutta to Delhi. From being a first generation entrepreneur to becoming India’s most prominent power player in the political centrestage of the nation was a quick journey that involved taking a lot of short-cuts that were never on the map. When the Left withdrew support from the UPA over the nuclear deal in 2008, Singh ensured support from the Samajwadi Party, the party he left this year. By saving the government, he wanted payback soon enough. Except one was never sure whether the ‘fixing’ would benefit his erstwhile party or himself. Singh knows that what goes around comes around. Which means we can only wait for his return.

Tony Jesudasan, 58 Executive President, Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group

Anthony ‘Tony’ Jesudasan was pulled out by Dhirubhai Ambani from the United States Information Services (USIS) in 1990 and brought into the Ambani universe. Dhirubhai noticed his media-management abilities after the Ambani-Wadia corporate feud in the late 80s. Tony was also in the thick of things in the late-90s when Reliance faced an inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) into price manipulation and insider trading allegations during the sale of its stake in Larson & Toubro. Closer to Anil than to his brother Mukesh even in the undivided family, Tony’s low-key style is a perfect foil to Anil’s flamboyance. After the family’s very public break-up in 2005, he has emerged as Anil’s main trouble-shooter, not just in the media, but also when it comes to government affairs. He’s Anil’s right hand man. Make that his left hand too.

Suhel Seth, 50-plus, Managing Partner, Counselage

Suhel Seth is the Managing Partner of Counselage India, a Delhi-based brand consulting firm. But that’s hardly an introduction for this man. As a public commentator, both on TV and in print, he shapes opinion. The Calcutta-born Seth is Delhi’s most in-demand socialite. After he moved from Calcutta in 1995, Seth set up Equus with his brother Swapan. He maintains that he avoids doing business with friends. Which in no way stops him from making friends out of his clients. Vijay Mallya and Analjit Singh are among his best buddies. He also advises several blue-chip companies including British Airways. In yet another avatar, Seth, as a member of the Expert Committee on Railways, will chair a sub-committee to provide ‘new thinking and innovative approaches’ in advertising the country’s largest public sector company, the Indian Railways.

Niira Radia, 50-plus Chairperson, Vaishnavi Corporate Communications Ltd

As chief of Vaishnavi Corporate Communications Private Limited, Noesis Strategic Consulting Services, Vitcom and Neucom Consulting, Niira Radia was sitting pretty on an impressive client list. That’s until her ‘dealings’ in the 2G spectrum case brought her into the limelight. It’s her habit of trying to get things done that aren’t in the lobbyists’ standard operating manual — trying to fix appointments, that of A. Raja as Telecom Minister being the one that ‘outed’ her — that makes her such a loose cannon. She set up Neucomm in 2008 essentially to manage the media affairs of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited (RIL). Radia, a British passport-holder, was busy fire-fighting when she handled the political and media management of the failed Nano project of Tata Motors in Singur, West Bengal. Now, she’s busy fighting a different kind of fire.

Jean Drèze, 59 Senior Professor at the GB Pant Social Science Institute

Belgium-born development economist Jean Drèze is a man on a mission. After drafting the 2005 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), he’s now busy convincing the government to stick to the original form of the proposed National Food Security Bill. As a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC), Dreze played hardball to make social audit using the Right To Information Act mandatory for the NREGA. In his characteristic kurta and pajama, Drèze is no mere jholawalla. He’s a lobbyist armed with an economist’s sense of numbers and a crusader’s sense of justice. Dreze, an Indian citizen since 2002, has co-authored books with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. But his best work is the 1999 Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) on the state of school education in some north Indian states.

N.K. Singh, 69 Member of Rajya Sabha

Nand Kishore Singh — ‘Nandu’ to friends — stands at the busy intersection where politics, industry and bureaucracy meet. As secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee between 1998 and 2001, he crafted policies that affected key sectors such as energy, telecom, transportation and infrastructure. Always the quintessential bureaucrat, with his knowledge of administrative procedures and his network of contacts, Singh knows how to get things done in government. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar sought him out as the man who could fix the mess left by his predecessors and made him Deputy Chairman of the State Planning Commission. The fact that he dealt with equal ease with Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram as well as Yashwant Sinha in the finance ministry amply showcases N.K. Singh’s powers of influence — and his standing at the confluence.

Amit Mitra, 63 Secretary General, FICCI

Amit Mitra returned from America three years after Manmohan Singh’s 1991 Budget speech. Since then, the Delhi School of Economics-Duke University alumnus has played a seminal role in India’s transformation through economic reforms. He has become the face of policy advocacy, articulating reforms on industry’s behalf, especially arguing for policies once seen as regressive and holding back growth. Friends say that the Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) sometimes feels uncomfortable adopting a line that he does not necessarily agree with — especially those regarding corporate governance and corruption. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls him by his first name, as does Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Which goes to show his closeness to key policy-makers in the political establishment.

Rajiv K. Luthra, 50 Managing Partner, Luthra & Luthra

As the founder of one of India’s top corporate law firms, Rajiv Luthra sees himself more as an entrepreneur than a lawyer. Top multinational brands along with the likes of DLF and Kingfisher form a part of Luthra & Luthra’s long and impressive clients’ list. Fuelled by his argumentative and networking skills, this is a man who has an uncanny ability to solve ‘problems’ in the government sector. Perhaps best known for advising various foreign firms on entry strategies to penetrate the Indian market, Luthra also knows how to make friends — and make friends with strangers. He has no qualms in talking to anyone. Call him on his mobile and you can expect a return call within 24 hours even if he has never heard of you before. Who knows? He knows that you may know that one day you’ll need his sterling services.

Prema Sagar, 50-plus Principal and Founder, Genesis Burson-Marsteller

There’s at least one good reason why Prema Sagar was inducted into the International Communications Consultancy Organisation Hall of Fame in 2005 — the equivalent of a Life-time Achievement Oscar in the PR world. The PR star who started her career with global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller in 1992 is one of the most experienced professional in India’s communication management business. Started with her husband Jyoti Sagar, who runs the legal firm J. Sagar Associates (JSA) in Delhi, and her close friend Nandini Lakshman, Genesis initially relied mostly on JSA’s clients. It was one of the first movers in the nascent technology space with Sun Microsystems as one of the first Genesis clients. After parting ways with Lakshman, Sagar anchored Genesis, making it one of the biggest in the business till it was acquired by Burson-Martseller.

Deepak Parekh, 65 HDFC Chairman

He’s arguably the most influential man in business and finance. Parekh’s role in developing the housing sector has been phenomenal. He’s been a constant feature in various high-powered groups — from the high-powered committee on deteriorating financial health and BSNL’s competitiveness to the Investment Commission to advice on FDI policy to attract higher foreign investment. At the helm of an expert group, he recommended investment norms for the New Pension Scheme (NPS) and hard-sold his points on affordable housing and infrastructure in another task force. The central government appointed him as an independent director of the fraud-battered Satyam in 2009. Along with others, Parekh worked his magic to help Satyam dig itself out of a giant hole before the Mahindra & Mahindra group acquired it.

Harish Salve, 54 Supreme Court lawyer

Harish Salve seems to be involved in practically all the cases in the Supreme Court these days. Whether it’s defending former IPL boss Lalit Modi or those accused in the Godhra train-burning case, he takes up big challenges for big money. He has successfully argued for Mukesh Ambani against Anil for the control of the K.G. Basin gas. He’s much in demand — almost as much as he demands from his clients, no matter who he has to represent. Both Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav have hired him for their disproportionate assets cases. The measure of his flourishing practice can be gauged from the fact that he refused to take a second three-year term as Solicitor General of India in 2002. The lawyer plans to take a sabbatical for a while to teach at Oxford University. But he’s probably willing to postpone that if someone is making a good enough offer.

Sudhir Choudhrie, 70-plus Arms Dealer

Here’s the most shadowy kind of lobbyists: the arms dealer. Among Indians, few people fit this description so well as Sudhir Choudhrie. The elusive Choudhrie has allegedly been in the arms business for at least three decades. In indifferent health, and his power on the wane, he remains a key dealmaker for a host of Israeli and Russian companies. Choudhrie’s name came up in connection with the purchase of the Barak anti-missile system when George Fernandes was defence minister. He is still an accused in several cases of bribery and manipulation filed by the CBI. His name cropped up recently over election donations he made to the Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party. Choudhrie is said to hold stakes in Israeli arms company Soltam and in Russia’s Sukhoi and has money invested in hotels in India.

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