Opinion: Suitcases Out, Laptops In - The Death Of Lobbying In India

There was a time in the Indian capital when lobbyists could influence and seal deals to suit their masters. And politicians would eat out of their hands. Those were the heady days of lobbying in India.

Former liquor baron Vijay Mallya, now in exile, took lobbying to a new level. He took to carting the high and mighty on weekend binges. His private jets were tweaked to accommodate bureaucrats, politicians and influential persons, all given seven-star accommodation.

There was an IAS officer who, as a top shot of Air India, gave unlimited-go-anywhere-in-the-world business class cards to his IAS colleagues and selected political bosses. Who utilised the cards is still a locked secret in the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

And there was a champion lobbyist, the top honcho of a premier hospital. He had tremendous clout, thanks to free medical treatment he offered. He was the smartest fixer; he could fix anything in the corridors of Delhi. 

Some were so powerful that they could drum up support from over 150 MPs across party lines to raise in Parliament, even get finance ministry officials copy-paste some of their companies' pre-budget recommendations into the final budget speech. 

These influencers felt they were powerful. Like a steel baron who walked in the corridors of various ministries with a full entourage, including a person right behind him to catch his jacket the moment it was flung backwards.

Those were the days.

But now, the days of surreptitious meetings with spooks, officials and reporters in cafes are nearly over, except for a handful of the old school mavericks who have survived the digital age and changes to the way the government operated since the last decade.

In short, few want to gain political influence in India. Now, no one splurges cash, gold biscuits, gold coins or gold ganeshas during Diwali.

Now, many can't dig foxholes like the old days. NDA is like Fort Knox, you just cannot walk in. You need solid connections.

Nowadays, the government does not even care to issue circulars about stopping undesirable people in the ministries. Secretaries of ministers who were "friendly" have flown, so special meetings cannot be arranged. Hence, there is no friendly banter.

"If you were to do business with the government then things need to be super transparent, I would involve as many stakeholders so that everyone would know what is happening on the table," says Deepak Talwar, a former lobbyist.

So how does lobbying happen? Many seek help from the ideological founts of people who flock the corridors of power.

That is not to say the political advocacy people are out of work. This brigade comes in handy when elections are round and ticket-seekers need help. These lobbyists open doors to top RSS brass or top BJP leaders who can genuinely swing the tickets.

This is political, and there is corporate.

Lobbyists in the form of several legal firms and advocacy firms were active when gaming companies were saddled with a 28 percent GST. They held routine meetings with officials of the Finance Ministry, explaining why the tax structure would not stand a chance in the courts. 

Yet, the Finance Ministry did not budge. Exasperated, a senior official of a gaming company even told a top official: "Looks like you people are conjuring up some magical sum (of Rs 100,000 crores) from three gaming companies only because the divestment target of the annual budget has not been met." The Finance Ministry official did not reply.

The same happened when a host of oil companies lobbied hard to bureaucrats to drop the windfall gain tax from petroleum products. That also did not work.

"Suitcases are out, laptops are in. Influence peddling has been replaced with intense confabulations and the power broker has been replaced with powerpoints, at least at the Centre. Good practitioners today rely more on data and arguments and there is less discretionary arbitrage," says Supriyo Gupta of Torque, a communications agency.

Sometimes lobbying works, as happened in the case of the government's move to push the controversial Tax Collected At Source (TCS). The government, in the face of some solid lobbying and media advocacy, backtracked and kept the plan on the backburner. For the lobbyists, putting things on the backburner is considered success.

Lobbyists work in all kinds of environments. Some moons ago, big guns of the liquor business met for five days in the Lodhi Hotel to discuss ways to dominate Delhi's liquor business. But the scam exploded and ended with some high-profile arrests.

Some old-school people too have adopted a hybrid mode of operations, swinging between the old systems of plugging stories to reporters and the new ways of lobbying for their corporate clients.

There are few takers for the print media, or the media in general. Some lobbyists push out stories to the print media so as to make sure there are no loopholes, they call it media advocacy.

The big leap is now on social media. Lobbyists spend more time on social media themselves, boosting their own profile as well as keeping a track of influencers in their sphere of work. Some of the most influential are the YouTubers, and some of those who seem to work without any influence are also malleable.

Benefits previously reserved for reporters now are directed to YouTube influencers which have left some journalists unhappy, and also upset with the lack of press junkets. Some lobbyists have been known to use bots to ramp up the social media presence of their clients. 

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has often issued warnings against such influencers who would often peddle stocks of all kinds. Some of the companies employ entrepreneurs who specialise in this. An example for both of these is the auto sector. There are rarely any negative reviews of automobiles in an industry where every corporation is releasing products that are very similar to each other. 

The influencers are given early access to vehicles, sneak peeks and lots of gifts based on their viewer counts and engagements. Company social media handles are boosted by enterprises that use WhatsApp to reach out to the large number of unemployed youths with smartphones. They are both consumers of these social media plugs as well as people who can be paid to subscribe to channels and engage with the content on them. Each subscription or 'like' gets Rs 100. 

Delhi-centric deal-making has decreased, opening up opportunities for lobbyists from across the country. 

This is also because influencing bureaucrats is not as easy as it used to be earlier, there is a close watch on who is coming to meet with officials and why to diminish chances of corruption allegations.

Paid junkets for bureaucrats are a thing of the past. There are no more business class flights, even silent upgrades inside the aircraft have gone for a toss. There is always a trail.

So, what is the way out? Take some hard calls. Why not plug a Brazil-Argentina semi-final to be watched from the corporate box, or a Grand Prix from the balcony of the hotel in Singapore? Take a bunch for a darshan of the Lal Baugh Cha Raja Ganesha in Mumbai. Remember how a fugitive diamond merchant some years ago had rented a private jet and asked bureaucrats of the Commerce Ministry to take a ride for a special darshan?

What hasn't changed is the 'entertainment expense' column in the daily ledger. Lobbyists still take out pals for drinks, scoping for the odd bit of corporate intelligence.

Some contemplated using tech surveillance to keep a tab on what their competitors are up to. Which is why some lobbyists are very careful as to what they say on their phone.

Most of them have become digital savvy. They only use data calls and apps such as Telegram and FaceTime to make calls to set up meetings and avoid detailed discussions on those apps that were avoidable. This started after the Radia Tapes but was amplified by the Pegasus scandals. And now, there is much cheaper malware available from shady consultants.

But work cannot stop, right? So, make the work look like the perfect corporate social responsibility. It will please the masters. That means 75,000 sewing machines, 10 lakh bicycles, 100 ambulances, leaders ranging from a bunch of political parties.

A few multinationals go a step forward, creating a special home to showcase instruments of legends, say the shehnai of the legendary Bismillah Khan at a museum in Varanasi. They are all in the pleasing business. The list is endless.

Some prefer the PPP model. Gaming companies were encouraged to spend cash on stadiums built by the government but now in a dilapidated condition. Costs hover between Rs 1.5-2 crore per annum. It pleases the politicians who can use the stadium for football, cricket, or more importantly, political rallies.

Companies seeking direct policy changes often let promoters talk directly to the people in power. Some of their corporate honchos even land up at events attended by hundreds but still manage to get some private moments from a minister. And then there is scope to exchange pleasantries during festivals.

There is civilised lobbying, and uncivilised lobbying. The first is the Washington-way. The second - mostly plantation and mining companies - is very crass. They do things openly. Sterlite Power lobbied hard to open the Thothakuddi plant, arguing the closure is all political and less environmental. But it still did not work.

Top sources say some of the important companies include Koan Advisory, Dialogue, Primus, Chase, DeepStart and Aakhya. There is also Brunswick, FTI Consulting and APCO Worldwide. Manu Kapoor, former Samsung big shot, is a seasoned campaigner. And there is Mukesh Aghi, the President and chief executive officer of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum whose favourite lines are: "If India grows, the world grows too." There are some journalists too in the game, one from Gujarat and a television journalist from Uttar Pradesh. Both are considered powerful.

New age lobbyists are doing their work, minus cash, gold or Khan Market coffee.

(Shantanu Guha Ray is the Asia Editor of Central European News, UK. His book on coal, Black Harvest, will hit the stands soon)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.