Corporate Lobbying

Corporate lobbying has got so much face-time because of the Niira Radia tapes that people were talking about it on the street, along with the price of vegetables and the ‘Munni’ and ‘Sheila ki Jawani’ item numbers. For the people in the know, it always existed in the shadows, and was never really brought up for public scrutiny. That is the real difference this time around – i.e. the public has caught them at it.

Since the tapes were leaked and uploaded on Outlook’s site and portions of them were transcribed and published in both Outlook and Open magazines, the furore has been about the big names being bandied about, by a non-entity who no one had heard of in the past. What was meant to be an investigation into her tax evasion affair has turned into a full-blown circus.

Radia calls and talks a lot – to a lot of people. I actually heard three of the tapes and didn’t have the curiosity to listen to the entire lot put up on Outlook’s site. The ones which I heard were – Vir Sanghvi calling her up and actually telling her of how he slanted the tone of one of his columns to suit her convenience.

The other is of Barkha Dutt talking to her about political give-n-take, which Dutt has gone on air at NDTV and defended furiously, by saying that it is part of journalism to follow up on tips but she acknowledged that in hindsight, she should have been more careful of dealing with Niira Radia. She did not answer Open editor, Manu Joseph’s question, to his satisfaction, over why NDTV had not reported the fact that a corporate lobbyist had so many of her fingers in so many pies. All Dutt had to say was that, it was a judgment call made by NDTV, not to do this aspect as a story by itself.

The third tape was of her talking to Ratan Tata, where she goes on and on, while he listens to her and asks her a question here or there. Honestly, everyone should hear this tape and not read it – you get the impression that she really is trying hard to impress and swing deals for her clients. So, why is any of this so surprising? Were we Indians, really so incredulous that we did not know that lobbying happens when huge amounts of money is involved, or favours are required to be done?

The big reason why people have objections to Niira Radia’s profession/tapes, is that the social media ecosphere just exploded over her phone conversations. But these are conversations that could be had by any two people discussing deals and current affairs of the day, with no repercussions, if the conversations were private and both parties are not making use of any information to further an agenda. That is precisely what Radia was doing – pursuing goals – but isn’t that precisely what she was hired to do by Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani?

Ironically, this woman has been brought down by hubris, even though she did do her corporate PR-lobbying job very well. She may have assumed that having access to all those big-shots would protect her, when she was evading tax payments, and that was her undoing.

In the process, she has taken everyone else down with her as well. Don’t blame lobbying, which is considered a legitimate way to do business these days in the US, where corporates lobby to put a favoured senator or judge in the right position of power.

Google, RIM and Microsoft, among others, have dedicated lobbyists who espouse their causes in Washington DC. Why else would Hillary Clinton try to sweet-talk to Saudi Arabia and the UAE on behalf of RIM, when these two countries were threatening to ban blackberry usage? It was hardly a matter of state, but it was a matter of business interests for sure. After all, politicians are meant to look out for the best interests of their citizens and their country’s corporate enterprises.

India’s first public taste of corporate lobbying has been unseemly to say the least, but now keeping things in some sort of perspective is important. These tapes have made everyone wary, with people like Deepak Parikh, chairman of HDFC, going on record to say that leaking of private conversations has hurt industry morale. Notice that he is not pointing fingers at any of the people involved or even the conversations per se, but just the fact that, one person’s tapped phone entrapped so many others needlessly.

Meanwhile, in a more proactive and sensible manner, Corporate Affairs minister, Salman Khurshid has said on the sidelines of a FICCI seminar ‘Corporate Sustainability and Driver of Innovation’, that the government is looking for a way to regulate corporate lobbying. This is the right way forward, since the cat is anyway out of the bag.

Manali Rohinesh

She is on the websphere – so searching a little bit for her should be fun for those who are curious to know more about her.

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