Women Spies In The Corridors of Power

Like spooks, lobbyists operate in a shadowy and murky world of power and money and grapple with intrigues. We have famous women, who occupy corporate corner rooms and have an immense hold over people who lord over the corridors of power

By Alam Srinivas
  • In public imagination, women secret agents, like their counterparts in business, play a secondary role – a Female Fatale to lay “honey traps”
  • Niira Radia’s downfall came months after the release of Radia Tapes, which had a damning conversation with ministers, CEOs and journos
  • Sunita Narain tends to over-sell viewpoints, which skirt around the issues of environmental activism and militancy
  • expertise in dispute resolution, and as a specialist in competition law, Pallavi Shroff nudges policy-making via the legal route

THE art and science of spying are akin to lobbying. Like spooks, lobbyists operate in a shadowy and murky world of power and money and grapple with intrigues. Both collect loads of information, and influence policies and policy-makers. A spy, like a middleman, can be a trained and experienced professional, or hail from varied branches such as business, academics, civil society, banking, and law. Like a double agent, a corporate conspirator can lead a double life, a staid and transparent one in the mornings, and a dark and lively one in the evenings.

In public imagination, women secret agents, like their counterparts in business, play a secondary role – a Female Fatale to lay “honey traps” to hunt powerful and wealthy men. However, history is replete with famous undercover agents like Virginia Hall (British Lady with a Limp) and India’s Noor Inayat Khan (a royal portrayed in a movie, A Call to Spy, and the protagonist of a book, Spy Princess). In India, we have famous women, who occupy corporate corner rooms, and have an immense hold over people who lord over the corridors of power.

WOMEN INFLUENCE

Some of them are genuine practitioners of public affairs, a few bait their fish mostly by crook, rather than a hook, and there are those who lead double lives. They are complex personalities with exemplary traits and networks that defy common notions. We know about the rise, rise and dramatic fall of Niira Radia. We are aware of political shenanigans played by Facebook’s Ankhi Das. But we don’t think of Naina Lal Kidwai (banker), legal luminaries like Zia Mody and Pallavi Shroff, and Sunita Narain (civil society) as power brokers and policy negotiators.

Niira Radia’s empire was all-encompassing. She knew ministers on a first-name basis. She had corporate bigwigs like Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani eat out of her hand. She could nudge, even force editors and senior journalists to write exactly what she wished

Radia’s empire was all-encompassing. She knew ministers on a first-name basis. She had corporate bigwigs like Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani eat out of her hand. She could nudge, even force editors and senior journalists to write exactly what she wished to. Her relationships were both personal and professional – a recorded conversation with Tata has them discussing her dress, and another with Tarun Das has them talking about her new Rs 42-lakh car. She was the unquestioned princess, if not the queen, in the labyrinths of policy and profit.

Hers was a grand experiment to form a Howrah-like sustainable and strong bridge between the private sector and public policy-makers. She convinced the former to outsource public affairs and lobbying activities to a private outsider-insider and cajoled the latter to initiate win-win decisions in the garb of public interest. Her downfall came months after the release of Radia Tapes, which included select and damning conversations with ministers, CEOs, and journalists. She abruptly shut down the sprawling and thriving Vaishnavi Corporate Communications Pvt Ltd.

Ankhi Das of Facebook was in charge of an internal team to manage the external environment. As public policy head of an expansive social media kingdom, she was steeped deep in political deceptions and conspiracies. In closed-door meetings, and texts in a professional social media group, she took credit for the BJP’s victory in the Gujarat Assembly Elections in 2012. She claimed part-responsibility for Narendra Modi’s overwhelming victory in the 2014 National Elections. Something like how Cambridge Analytica and Russian hackers contributed to Donald Trump’s triumph in the 2016 US presidential elections. She was ceremoniously removed – officially she resigned – after a string of media reports alleged that she had deliberately and purposely allowed BJP politicians to vent hate speeches in their Facebook posts. Das’ vast test was to figure out if active-divisive behaviour on social media can trigger an unstoppable, but not-so-loud, and not-so-bloodied, social revolution in a large nation with a huge population. The unstated aim was to fuel and fan the largely-repressed anger of a majority, which still believed, at least, publicly, in democracy and elections.

DEAL MAKERS

Cambridge Analytica’s discredited moves in American elections proved that it wasn’t necessary to shake up hundreds of millions of voters to ensure victory for a specific candidate or political party. It was enough to do so with tens of millions in select swing states, which could go either way (Democrat or Republican), and where the margins of victories were generally slim. This was true of India. To state it mathematically, the BJP won 37.36% of the 67.4% votes cast in the 2019 national elections, which translates into 25% of the eligible voters. Hence, a swing of a few percentage points among the electorate can ensure a massive victory.

 Naina Lal Kidwai is known as the quintessential deal-maker in corporate, stock market, and bureaucratic circles. She is the darling of institutional and retail investors. During the 1980s, she honed her investment banking skills as multinationals were forced to dilute the parents’ holdings due to FERA (1973). In the 1990s, she became an expert in NRI inflows to India after the First Gulf War. During the same decade, she was actively involved in the setting up of the National Stock Exchange, which later bulldozed the older and established Bombay Stock Exchange.

Sunita Narain’s famous intervention was when the CSE examined popular water bottle and carbonated drink brands for pesticide contamination in 2003-04. The study created a furore as it engulfed companies like Parle Group and Pepsi-Coke, and led to the formation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee

When she became the head of HSBC in the 2000s, her attention shifted to financial inclusion, especially through microfinance institutions. Sadly, the banker failed to realise the unintended consequences. Within years, even as microfinance became a raging hit in neighbouring Bangladesh, it was beset with controversies and scandals in India. Unscrupulous middlemen borrowed money in the names of rural women, who had no idea about it. The former paid the latter a small fee and vamoosed with the bulk of the money. The loans were never repaid, and the lenders went bust in a staggering manner.

Despite this state of affairs, Kidwai’s belief in microfinance remained steadfast. In an interview with this writer years ago, she espoused that this was the way forward to empower rural women. She had confidence in the microfinance model, despite the failures. In fact, she spearheaded HSBC’s endeavour to start a business school for rural women, Mann Deshi Udyogini, in partnership with an NGO in Satara District, Maharashtra. If women can become entrepreneurs, and take charge of their economic and financial lives, India’s prosperity will become a reality.

SHATTERED GLASS CEILING

In most corporate marriages (mergers and acquisitions), and divorces (splits in business families), the go-to ‘High Priestess’ is Zia Mody, who heads AZB Partners, possibly the largest legal firm in India. As she negotiates tricky, contentious and high-profile corporate deals, she invariably deals not just with CEOs and business owners, but with ministers, well-known politicians, legal arbitrators and other dominant shareholders (institutional investors and high net-worth individuals). Hence, her professional footprint is far larger than the legal arena. She treads and acts in the theatres of politics and wealth.

Years ago, when I interviewed her for a book, Women of Vision, she remembered one deal with global significance, and side-stepped another, which had national implications. The former was her first cross-border deal, Tata’s acquisition of NatSteel in 2004. Mody had to figure out a path through a convoluted policy, regulatory and legal maze, as NatSteel had a global footprint with operations in China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Australia. In addition, there was a need to talk to the Indian policy-makers and regulators to keep them in the loop.

Zia Mody was one of the negotiator-arbitrators between the two brothers, Mukesh and Anil, who divided the large empire. But here too, it was evident that she had to traverse a trail that cuts through politics, business, media, stock market, and bureaucracy

Her lobbying skills came to the forefront when the Tata Group gobbled up Corus Steel, Europe’s second-largest steel company, in 2007. However, the acquisition process was tricky, and wracked by politics, diplomacy, colonial legacy, and racist overtones, apart from cut-throat commercial competition. Since the bulk of the Corus’ operations were in the UK and an Indian group was about to take it over, these issues logically came into play. Ultimately, the Tata Group paid 608 pence per share or a third more than its initially-accepted bid of 455 pence.

Mody’s reticence and apprehension were visible when I asked her about the split within the Ambani family in 2005. She was one of the negotiator-arbitrators between the two brothers, Mukesh and Anil, who divided the large empire. But here too, it was evident that she had to traverse a trail that cuts through politics, business, media, stock market, and bureaucracy. The Finance Minister and Prime Minister were involved in ensuring a peaceful and fair distribution of wealth. Famous bankers, foreign investors, and even religious gurus played a role.

In comparison to the above-named women, Pallavi Shroff remains outside the purview of the intense public gaze. Only recently, she came out of the shadows of her husband, after a split in the legal partnership, which allowed her to head one of the resulting factions. As a lawyer, she is well-established and known. But as a public affairs person, she isn’t. “Within the legal fraternity, she is the most respected and admired expert in public affairs, both in terms of results and passion. Not many are aware of it,” says a leading Delhi-based corporate lobbyist.

With expertise in dispute resolution, and known as a specialist in competition law, Shroff nudges policy-making via the legal route. However, it is interesting to note what Facebook’s Ankhi Das said about the lawyer in 2015. “We’ve worked together in the areas of free expression and human rights as they impact the Internet. I’ve found her sharp analysis in matters relating to Internet freedom and intermediary liability very useful,” she told BusinessToday. It is ironic that someone who slays Internet freedom praises the one who saves it.

As public policy head of an expansive social media kingdom, Ankhi Das was steeped deep in political deceptions and conspiracies

Talk to any person interested in the environment, and the discussion will veer around Sunita Narain and her organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). She and her colleagues, claims the CSE website, “advocated for the introduction of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) in Delhi, to reduce air pollution. The successful implementation of CNG in buses in the Capital has led to a substantial reduction in air contaminants, and has become a model for the rest of the world”. As a member of an official and statutory body, she helps in evolving strategies to further reduce air pollution in Delhi and other cities.

Narain’s famous intervention was when the CSE examined popular water bottle and carbonated drink brands for pesticide contamination in 2003-04. The study created a furore as it engulfed companies like Parle Group and Pepsi-Coke, and led to the formation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee. “The report of the parliamentarians has become an important milestone in building a new and more vibrant regulatory system to ensure that contamination in food and water is minimised and does not compromise human health,” states the CSE website.

However, her critics contend that Narain tends to go overboard in her passion and zeal. She tends to overstate and over-sell viewpoints and opinions, which skirt around the issues of environmental activism and militancy. But then that’s the point of lobbying – success at any cost, and private benefits wrapped around in shining public interest robes, or vice versa. The private sector can pitch them openly, and public servants can support them enthusiastically. As I said earlier, it is a win-win for both sides. The public can debate the issues in the living rooms.

Alam Srinivas

Alam Srinivas is a business journalist with nearly three decades behind him, working for The Times of India, India Today, Outlook, Financial Express and Business Today. He is the author of “Cricket Czars: Two Men who Changed the Gentleman’s Game”.

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