The public perception of some of the largest private sector players in the country can best be captured by a slight tweak to what American journalist Matt Taibbi had written about Goldman Sachs in 2010: India’s most powerful private companies are great vampire squids wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming their blood funnel into anything that smells like money.
Unfortunately, this is not entirely untrue.
The twelve people who were arrested for the leaks of sensitive documents from the Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry this week included five senior executives from Reliance Industries, the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, Essar, Jubilant Energy and Cairn India. The remaining seven comprised serving and former low-ranking employees from the ministry, the owner of a small consultancy firm for the oil sector, and a senior journalist who runs a web portal and who allegedly made money by selling secret government documents.
The entire episode would not come as a surprise to anybody who has worked on policy and governance. Indeed, it appears to be a known fact that such leaks to corporate houses are commonplace, even customary. During the course of my reporting for a story about the oil and gas sector last year, I asked a former petroleum secretary about Reliance’s seemingly uncanny ability to procure classified documents. He responded with a chuckle and went on to tell me that, when Dhirubhai Ambani—the founder of the company—was alive, it was rumoured that he had a copy of the budget with him even before it was tabled in Parliament. In my short reporting career, the endless anecdotes that I have heard of Reliance’s influence over the ministries, from multiple bureaucrats, journalists and public affairs professionals for private companies, have convinced me that the company seemed to function as a shadow government.
A former secretary of one of the four Raisina Hill ministries once described to me how representatives of Reliance—among other private companies—would come to visit him or his juniors with a prepared draft of an upcoming policy that could affect their companies. These drafts, he admitted, would often be superior to the ones that some of the top bureaucrats could produce. The babu would have a million files on his table, while the private firm could commission an entire team for the preparation of a single policy document. The former secretary then went on to tell me that, sometimes, when the overworked bureaucrats were short on time and attention, they would send one of these drafts up the chain. This is probably the most benign form of lobbying. There would be no quid pro quo, and the company would get what it wanted.