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Corporate Lobbying – The Indian View

For decades, lobbyists in India have been maligned by many but a closer look will reveal how they worked overtime to bring some of the top global brands to the Indian shores. Suhel Seth, Deepak Talwar, Dilip Cherian have always walked the talk on high stakes.

Since decades, lobbying has been the backbone behind some of the major government projects across the world. Some key people, better known as corporate lobbyists or influencers, have continued to act as the bridge between government and private players – connecting the like- minded ministers and bureaucrats to corporate captains for the benefit of the society. Although lobbying traces its origins to the western world, other countries have traces of the practice that has led to crucial government policy changes and saved dying deals at the last minute.

India is one of them.

Dilip Cherian, former editor of Business India and corporate editor of Business & Political Observer (the pink daily Dhirubhai Ambani launched with loads of fanfare but eventually lost the edge to Economic Times), has rightly put it when he says that his firm takes lobbying as an extension of communication. Even the official government of a country can, and does, hire a lobbying firm to express their intentions, plans, and strategy to a foreign counterpart. In the US and elsewhere in the world, such management of power is recognised as legitimate activity: lobbying. Instead of intrigue and counter intrigue, there is visible pressure and counter pressure on government decision-making. With a number of corporate runners for the smallest government contract, a good corporate lobbyist can be the difference between failure and success.

Some examples
Deepak Talwar of Deepak Talwar Associates, Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations, or Suhel Seth of Counselage – these names are synonymous with shaping the future of extremely successful Indian companies, and also multinational corporations which came to the Indian shores to set up shop, do business, generate revenue for the government and boost employment. While Talwar is known as the investment rule guru who transformed the FDI quotient of Coca Cola in a tough fight with Pepsico, Suhel Seth's communication skills and media connections have posed him as the brain behind the success of Vodafone, Max, and other companies.

But in India, very sadly lobbying was typified by Big Bull Harshad Mehta and his ubiquitous suitcase of cash. Ranged along that spectrum was the hectic lobbying by the Escorts group at the PMO in the 1980s to stave off a takeover bid by Swaraj Paul's London-based Caparo Group, and the fabled power of Reliance to secure all deals from every political party.

The Dilemma
But, here's the interesting part: Corporate lobbyist, or lobbying, is seen under a bad light in India. By conduct, lobbying is a behind the scene operation and when one operates in a grey area, even for the benefit of the country, words like cheat and scam come into play. Lost is the benefit the lobbyists bring to consumers of the country, lost is the orchestrated idea of public good. On the contrary, any corporate expert, industry veteran, or lobbyists would never vote for the abolishment of the practice. Reason? If a policy needs to be changed, adjusted, or removed, deep knowledge and insight on the associated topic is required and that is where corporate lobbyists come into the picture.

Proposed Solution
So why not change the guidelines and make the process more transparent? Since lobbying is a western concept, India can follow the path of legalizing the practice by formulating a framework – similar to the west. Detailed disclosures, certainly confidential, of verbal and financial interactions between companies and lobbyists, or their firms, can drastically improve the transparency of the process.

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