Liaison work has been going on since ages in every corridor of power across the world. The recent episode at Oil Ministry, however, points out the stark reality of liaison work turning into corporate espionage
There is a big noise about corporate espionage in Delhi spilling over into spying and worse, currently with oil, defence and telecom. And this is expected to spill over to other sectors too, probably banking, transport and health, over the next few days.
However, this is not new. So first, there is a bit of a first-person account on the root of this industry, corporate espionage with spillovers.
There used to be a day and age, about 20-30 years ago, when I knew almost every corridor and room in the buildings that counted for all-India aspects of industrial survival and growth. Udyog Bhavan, Shastri Bhavan, Parivahan Bhavan, Rail Bhavan, Lok Nayak Bhavan, Hans Bhavan, Nirman Bhavan, Akbar Hotel, Mayur Bhavan, Oil Coordination Committee, Shastri Bhavan and more to name a few. Located within a radius of about three kms in Central Delhi, they provided the documentation required for pretty much everything that industrial existence in India needed from start-up to renewal to expansion to purchase of raw materials to sale of finished goods, even for permission to move semi-finished goods from one factory to another within the same compound.
In addition, there was the Steel Controller in Calcutta (Kolkata now) and the Reserve Bank of India in Bombay (Mumbai now), where again, I knew the corridors and offices too.
There was nothing I could not get done for the up-country companies, I represented for what was called ‘liaison work’. Tools of the trade were a telex machine in the garage, a single land-line shared by all at home, an Olivetti portable typewriter, a Bajaj Chetak scooter with a lockable ‘dickey’ for reliable transport and ease of parking in Delhi, a solid contact to get Indian Airline tickets converted from waiting list to confirmed, and a glib tongue.
This was the most important - a glib tongue, which apart from being able to deliver impeccable English in writing as well as oral submissions to senior officers, could also perform in very good Hindi assorted for Delhi, Bengali or Marathi for the other two cities. In addition were about 20 phrases of each one of the four main South Indian languages in case required. Since most of my customers were from South India, this helped with them also, and regular visits to their offices and factories helped me brush up on language skills there too.
In those days, you could drive up into these buildings and park pretty much anywhere because you knew all the paan-wallahs and were on good terms with the gent selling whatever was the snack of the season and region. You can breeze in without worrying about ‘passes’, if you did not want to register your presence because the guards knew that at the end of the year I would be generous with diaries and calendars. In any case, I distributed ‘imported’ disposable ball-pens like so much confetti (I was known for carrying dozens of six-colour disposable ball-pen sets, which were cheaper than the four-colour click type ball-pen but could only be found in and around Calcutta, Madras and Bombay docks, and carried the ‘imported’ tag so important in those days. Later on when ball-pens became commonly available, I started distributing felt pen sets, flat packs of 6, 10 or 12. "This is for your children", I used to say, always!)
The work was easy - find out how to do something for the companies, find out what the competition was doing, and find out what the SIA or DGTD or RBI or Railways or whoever else were likely to be doing. Find out how to motivate foreign exchange for everything from travel to import of raw materials, get this licence, or that permission, find out so much more - and then do it, deliver - one had to be a master of everything past, present and future.
I learnt so much about so many industries then that at times, I thought, I should pay them, my clients, for the privilege and education.
Nothing was illegal, everything was difficult, and one had to be totally solution oriented with a goal - by any means, get the job done. Beg, borrow, lend, bend, export, import, do whatever had to be done. (There are 7 more elements to this ditty, by the way, but a bit too raunchy here!)
There was always a typist under a tree nearby, who already knew 90% of the ‘matter’ required for anything. There was always a small stall nearby selling juice or something, which would have not just a telephone to share and be a sort of ‘poste restante’ service but also provide the contact numbers and home addresses of everybody needed. There would always be a bookstore within the premises, which would provide information, tactics and follow-up services once mutual trust was established. And there would always be somebody, who would give long lectures on how honesty is the best policy and then deliver for the best prices if you listened to their religious monologues.
The most important element, however, was being able to start and end a conversation with utmost respect in their language. You had to know the correct salutations and at the same time be able to get the message across that you were in charge of the purse strings. And ‘presents’ had to be presented with utmost discretion; the game had to be played out like an opera, even if it took hours. Luckily, in those days of Indian Airlines only, you could bank on the last flights from Calcutta or Bombay to Delhi being very late; otherwise I have no idea how many times I would have had to spend overnights for what was essentially day-return kind of assignments.
In Bombay, for example, I have walked from RBI to VT and then travelled by local train till Dombivili, visiting that person's temple on the way to his house, where I would be offered a cup of tea before I would "do the needful". All the while essential to keep a discussion on something totally unconnected going, and then pelt back to Kurla, from where I would take a taxi to Santa Cruz only to find out that the last 8:40pm flight to Delhi was now delayed by four hours. But the all-important message from RBI to whichever office in Delhi needed to get that message would be out by 11am next morning, which is what counted.
If you were in "liaison work" in Delhi and you were good at it with a reasonable amount of honesty, which meant you never lied about the amounts paid or spent but spelt out your add-on fees in advance so that the industrialists could get a fix on the costs involved, then you were right up there with the best of society in Delhi. I worked for some of the biggest names in India in those days.
Then I got fed up, times changed and work often bordered on anti-National or direct illegal, and I moved on to other opportunities. In addition, forgive me for being naive; many of the people from the liaison industry in Delhi could see themselves being replaced by bigger entities. One of whom I worked for, for a couple of years, too. Right up there with the best internationally, where I learnt what the power of media and public relations (PR) combined were, in making governments do what they wanted them to do.
‘Media’ or ‘PR’ were not the kind of competition then that they are today, nor was the padding of expenses to a 10x or more level even considered, and there was a strange kind of honesty which kept what we thought was National Interest paramount and up front. This is very difficult to explain, but I knew many others in the same game, and one thing we never ever did was say or tolerate anything that we felt was anti-India.
I will provide specific examples. When foreign pharma companies came trundling into India and tried to get some of us to work towards literally sabotaging Indian pharma companies, I recall some of the biggest and best ‘liaison agents’ getting together at a restaurant near Palika Parking, and deciding to not do their job - partly also on the request of some senior civil servants, it was said. I was already working for a foreign liaison set-up then, saw what they were talking about, and moved on.
And yes, I knew Sabina and Shantanu Saikia then, too. They lived not far from where I did, in Defence Colony.
So when and how did "liaison work" become espionage, not just corporate, but worse?
(Veeresh Malik started and sold a couple of companies, is now back to his first love—writing. He is also involved in helping small and midsize family-run businesses re-invent themselves