Lobbying in India; a millenarian chessboard

by Véronique Queffélec on février 22, 2010


Below is an English translation of an article previously published in French on the subject of lobbying in India. Indeed, as a public affairs consultant based in Paris, I also provide strategic consulting in Dehli and Mumbai.

It’s difficult to get into the Indian market without considering lobbying. And if an initial market study is necessary, as is the case anywhere else, its analysis and modus operandi are radically different. In order to outpace the competition, our large firms must consider tailoring their lobbying activities to the paradoxical specificities and complex networks of the subcontinent.

The first difficulty has to do with the complexity and subtlety of the networks that will convey the message. Indian networks are numerous; some strictly respect hierarchies while others are continuously fluctuating. First of all, a serious negotiator cannot ignore the Indian Constitution which is the keystone to the first network. The Constitution establishes a federal state structure where the Union has a specific jurisdiction, the federated states have their own jurisdictions, and some domains are shared by both. The negotiator must understand that in India, the political organisation and the Civil Service are parallel and that in the latter, which is very pernickety, each grade is important, even the lowest. The negotiator must keep in mind that, although this same Constitution abolished castes, these still exist; he must therefore, tailor his argument according to which caste he is dealing with. He must take into account the importance of the military which often have ties with the political and business community. He must keep in mind that the Indian civilization is over five thousand years old, is proud of its heritage and understandably demands respect for its traditions. He can suggest a solution or a decision to an Indian but he cannot attempt to impose it; a partnership should be favoured instead, in order to establish himself in India. Lastly, he must consider the historical importance of the Commonwealth which can be useful, for instance, in choosing the city that will host of the Olympics.
The 25 million Indians who live abroad constitute an important network but they must be seen as a useful ally as a lever; caution must be taken not to mistake the target. A case in point is to use Lakshmi Mittal to revile India when in fact he is not Indian but British! It would have been better to talk about Sunil Mittal, who is president of Bharti Airtel, the largest telephone operator of the subcontinent, the sixth largest fortune of India. It’s best not to see India with monomania and to forget the equation “subcontinent equals Tata” just like in architecture, some equate India with the Taj Mahal. It would be better to consider Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries group which has a stock capital of 128.4 billion dollars whereas the Tata Group capital is only 72.9 billion. One must not forget the importance of some families which are real dynasties. Nor forget the think tanks and the affinities of sport club members and members of other associations, just like during the British Empire. Lastly, one must include in the “network box” the wide array of religious, philosophic or esoteric sensibilities and the affinities related to the eighteen official languages and the unofficial ones as well.

Multiple Paradoxes

The second difficulty will be to consider the multiple paradoxes inherent to the subcontinent. To talk with an Indian, to juggle with his frantic desire for modernity and his imperative to preserve traditions. One must keep in mind his fascination with Bollywood, luxury, ostentatious comfort while at the same time, take into account his survival amidst garbage dumps, with no available drinking water, in slums that are often close to airports where private jets land. The negotiations must take into account that practically no business can be done without charity and visa versa. One must steer a course through dialogue between his exacerbated rationality, his mathematical precision and his various superstitions. For example, one has to understand that a contract will not be signed without the consent of the guru astrologer who will be the one to decide on the date, the hour and the place where the contract will be signed. Vijay Mallya, president of Kingfisher Airlines, gets his planes delivered on the day determined by the stars. It’s useless to go to India, as some European companies have done recently, expecting to implement methods that have been successful in other Asian countries, such as China. More than anywhere else, in India, the conveying network of lobbying requires continuous adaptability, availability, involvement and time. Yet, this notion of time is not the same as ours. Probably because in Hindi, “kaal” means both “yesterday” and “tomorrow”. India is unique. Lobbying, under these conditions is like a passport and networking, a visa.

(*)European representative for All India Association of Industries.