By Dilip Cherian
Everyone needs the government on their side. A look at how to interpret the idiosyncrasies of the powers-that-be.
Do you often feel out on a limb when dealing with the government? This article may be of some help if you do, keeping in mind that there is no single magic bullet to influence the government. This is for several reasons, the most important being, of course, that the government itself is a changing and evolving organism. It moves forward and steps backward on the ever-shifting stage of domestic politics, and of course, of fickle public opinion.
Then, there are exigencies on account of rule makers in the courts and rule breakers from the jails. And to mess things up further, the laws of global pulls and unseen pressures. Negotiating this combination is tricky; determining what will work unfortunately involves a rather quirky mixture of enormous expertise and experience, phenomenal effort and a puzzling element of tukke bazi.
Naturally, what will work for one may not be appropriate for the other. The techniques that are core to the success of a giant corporation like Reliance, for instance, may not be those that an equally large corporation like Motorola finds appropriate.
Although their needs may be very much the same, one has to work within the confines of someone’s Oxley limitations. Yet everybody needs the government on their side. People in this heavily market-driven economy will say they don’t mind the government not being with them as long as it’s not against them. As long as the government itself is not a roadblock, they claim they are fine. That’s not true. Essentially, influencing the government is not only, still and likely to be for the foreseeable future, a critical function of most corporations at the board level; it also ends up being the core function of most savvy and smart CEOs who either have growth, expansion or entry strategies on their mind.
What are the broad rules we are looking at?
Rule # 1
Don’t take anything for granted or at face value when dealing with government. Look at the many SEZs that are currently in limbo. Infused by hope and propelled by initial policy announcements, there are many investors today who don’t quite know in which direction the policy is going to go in the future. They haven’t learnt the golden rule: If you receive a ‘no’, interpret it as ‘hold on’; if a ‘yes’ – then proceed, but with caution. Retail majors, for instance, were convinced that retail was about to open up. They were right – but neither Wal-Mart nor Carrefour, nor any of the other biggies had any idea how long the opening up was going to take. They still don’t.
Rule # 2
Understand the enemy. The biggest stumbling block to thinking processes about influencing the government is not recognising, explicitly, that there is an enemy. Whatever you want to do – somebody wants to block you. So Coke does not need to think only of its competitor in the marketplace, Pepsi. Often, the enemy you face could be a common one. In a competitive world, creative influencing of government is also about understanding who is against you, even if you don’t know why. Whether it’s simply the system, your competition, somebody else’s understanding of your product, old fashioned obstinacy, or a conspiracy. It’s sensible to sniff. Never dismiss conspiracy, it’s not paranoia.
Rule # 3
Remember, the battleground is important. So, setting the stage, making sure the agenda is wider than just your self-Interest and ensuring that there is a semblance of public opinion in your favour is obviously par for the course. To illustrate, when Monsanto wants to attempt selling hybrid seeds in India, it must sell the wider concept: low farm productivity, the need for good seeds and the obvious impact of science on yields. These are all issues that must be in the air before Monsanto can sow the seeds of profit for the future. Employees and trade unions are the easiest to reach for this purpose – through newsletters and meetings. Potential partners (both domestic and international), opinion makers like MPs and MLAs, and the general public can be reached through local and national media as well as non-media methods such as various trade forums.
Rule # 4
Being politically savvy is a pre-requisite to lobbying the government effectively. Knowing how government and parliament is organised and how they work is critical to an effective public affairs program. It’s not enough that your consultant either knows enough or pretends to. Try and figure it out for yourself too. This is a problem that aircraft giant Boeing had over the years. Winning a contract is one thing but becoming a savvy local corporation is another. Understanding how to make representations to the government, what tools and techniques can be effectively used to communicate with MPS, MLAs and the government of India, which ministries administer what, and which minister heads which ministry – these are both the obvious and the arcane bits of knowledge that can empower you and help you better understand the Byzantine workings of the Government of India.
Rule # 5
Understanding is good but go beyond: Try and build a coalition of stakeholders who have the same interests as yours. Try and build this at a time when you don’t really need to. Make friends in Delhi, carefully, but without any obvious purpose, within the political structure. Just keep them as friends and stay the course with them, through their political ups and downs. This, while you behave, always, as if you’re really part of a much larger interest group. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) may have been Bharti Mittal led but blocking titans, like an Ambani, could never have been individual led. Blocking, the COAI proved can indeed be done — even if the mighty GoI (surely even you know that’s the Government of India) seems to be on the other side. As an individual, you’re unlikely to influence policy; however, as an organised group (even if it is rather tenuous or temporary) with common goals, the chances of being heard – and possibly even achieving your objectives – are greater.
Rule # 6
Build a public affairs / advocacy campaign around a solid communications plan with the objective to get heard in New Delhi. It helps to understand, clearly, without any wishful thinking, the actual status of your organisation’s issues with the government. Remember, this is a business best left to experts. Those shady folk with briefcases, promising you a license, are gone with that Raj. Now you have organised lobbyists who may be difficult to find, but they exist. They may advise, but you must still lead from the front.
Rule # 8
Find the most suitable way to reach each of your target audiences, whether it’s through new media technology, personal representation or conventional media. How effective you are in the mass media depends on, a) interesting media in your campaign; b) the power and relevance of your messages; and c) how relevant that media is to the targets you need to influence. So, it’s no good getting yourself into all the pink papers with screaming headlines supporting your calls if most of those you need to talk to don’t read those papers at all. Remember, for example, that Laloo really doesn’t like pink! This applies even more critically to television. How well you identify your relevant target audiences will also play a part in the final outcome of your media campaign. Keep your finger on the pulse; regularly evaluate your campaign so you know whether you’re on track or need to change direction.
Equally important, recognise that there are always some profound unwritten rules. Example: Did you, in your rush, notice that Rule # 7 is missing or do you realise it’s just one way of telling you that you will never quite actually know everything?