Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Red Queens and Silver Haired Peacocks - Colourful World of Corporate Espionage

I too had my dalliance with corporate "lobbying" – but obviously not a good one as I can’t tell you anything about the views of senior ministers on adultery and extra-marital affairs or juicy bits on real affairs between corporate mata-haris and journalists.
Sometimes our collective public innocence can be touching. The recent hullabaloo over the discovery of a "corporate espionage" racket in important ministries and consequent arrests has this sense of déjà vu. Corporate lobbyists have existed probably since the inception of business and should not have come as a surprise to anyone. That big businesses have elaborate networks of contacts and sources to access sensitive government documents by means foul or fair is elementary knowledge even for a cub reporter.
In a command and control economy, still to outgrow the hangover of Licence Raj - business fortunes have been made either through influencing government policy in their favour or using prior knowledge of impending changes for windfall gains. It is all par for the course in a world where business and politics feed off each other. In the '90s – there were apocryphal stories about the famous liaison office of a large conglomerate in the commercial wing of a five-star hotel in central Delhi where the first drafts of government notifications were reportedly prepared. This spawned a virtual industry – euphemistically called "public advocacy" or business intelligence consultants – with Radiia bees and silvered haired peacocks at one end and rogue hacks like Saikia on the other – not to mention a chain of touts, pimps, brokers and wheeler dealers in-between.  
So the news isn’t about the existence of "corporate espionage" but why the new government chose to come down heavily upon them – making it a point to leak news of raids and arrests – implicating both small and big fishes. One can think of a few reasons:
1.) The government wished to drive the fear of God among a compromised bureaucracy and corporate houses whose business models rested on commercial intrigues.
2.) It wished to send out a message of transparency and fair-play to international investors – who may have been shying away from India due to negative publicity  about corruption.
3.) Correct its image about being excessively pro-business and impressions of indulging in "crony-capitalism".
4.) To spite specific businessmen towards whom the current dispensation are not well disposed.
It could be all or some of the above reasons.  At the same time – it needn’t be any of them too. For example – if the government’s intention was to pick on one or two particular players – why did they have to cast the net so far and wide. Similarly – it would be naive to believe all foreign investors shy away simply at the thought of corruption. What businessmen want is speed and predictability. Even MNCs are used to operating in environments far more corrupt than India. Again in an age when examination papers are leaked over Whatsapp – spies don’t need to rely on peons and photocopiers to steal documents.
Modi is too seasoned a politician not to recognise the symbiotic relation between business and government. But, he also realises it is potential Frankenstein that needs to be kept in a cage. To my mind – therefore – this is Modi’s way to create "space" for himself and his team to govern – breaking from the stranglehold of bureaucrats-business nexus. The message he wishes to send out is – I am the boss and play by my own script, you can’t dictate the agenda to me. This is also borne out from disparate list of companies caught in the investigation net. He has also, advisedly one feels,  kept business honchos at a distance by not appointing any of them to high office – as rumoured from time to time. If the grapevine has to be believed – he even ticked off one of his ministers for displaying backslapping bonhomie with his "Bombay Club" pals in early days of the government.
Having said that – "advocacy" per se is not a bad word. Many of us would look to make an honest living out of it. It provides the platform for exchange of ideas and opens up channels of communication between business and government that if practised responsible within an ethical construct works to the advantage of both. Abroad lobbying is both legitimate and institutionalised – with very explicit terms of engagement and ethics. India needs to develop such a culture of transparency and trust. For this enlightened business leaders have to show the way and industry bodies must also play a pro-active role rising above their present penchant for event management.  Otherwise Coalgate and Spectrum scams will soon be back on the scene.

Article first published in the @DailyO_ (click here to read the original piece)