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The power to change

They may not be running businesses or owning them, but this clutch of women in government influences the course that India Inc. takes.

Puja Mehra | Print Edition: November 29, 2009

Assets, turnover, growth, profits, and market value are some traditional measures used to judge how successful companies are—and, thereby, how powerful their chief executives or promoters are. Success in business and commerce, however, is just one manifestation of power. Perhaps a grander show of power down the years has been on the battlefield, right from the time of Julius Ceasar to, more recently, George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But at a time when nations going nuclear appears more real a threat than ever before, more power today resides in the hands of those who can maintain the peace than those who are itching to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

KUMARI SELJA, Union Minister for Housing, Urban Poverty Alleviation and Tourism
Power Play: Convinced Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to grant duty concessions for the import of adventure sports equipment in Budget 2009; got on board Bihar and UP for introducing cruises along the river Ganga by a foreign operator.
Thumbs up from: Ankur Bhatia, Executive Director, Bird Group “Her initiative, approachability and low time-of-learning-of-a-problem to time-of-action are impressive”
 
NIRUPAMA RAO, Foreign Secretary
Power Play: Negotiates at forums such as G8 and G20 on fiscal stimulus, regulatory reform, climate change and emissions. Oversees diplomatic content in WTO and Free Trade Agreement deals. China became India’s largest trading partner when Rao was ambassador in Beijing.
Thumbs up from: Nandan Nilekani, Chairman Unique ID Authority “Nirupama is outstanding, pleasant, smart and responsive. She’s a big supporter of Indian industry”
 
INDU LIBERHAN, Secretary, Defence Finance
Power Play: Will advise on Rs 40,000 crore worth of defence arms purchases this year. In TRAI, contributed to the reduction in prices of Internet and various telecom services.
 
MEERA SHANKAR, India’s Ambassador to the US
Power Play: Built a constituency for India amongst US investors as the Minister In Charge for Commercial Affairs in the Indian embassy in the US during 1991-95; had warned against guaranteeing returns to power projects such as Enron; as ambassador, brought to New Delhi’s attention the names of US companies identified in a Washington probe as paying bribes in India.
Thumbs up from: Som Mittal, President, NASSCOM “Both in Germany and the US she ensured she understands our issues and the opportunities we offer to foreign businesses”
 
SANTHA SHEELA NAIR, Mines Secretary
Power Play: Finalised the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, which is likely to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament; the bill, if passed, would benefit industries like power and steel.
Thumbs up from: Prashant Jain, General Manager Corporate Strategy, JSW Group “Nair doesn’t let queries or files linger, meets us with her team for taking decisive action so everybody is onboard. She is honest about the places where government is failing. To me, these are all firsts”

It might just be the time for the diplomats to take a bow. And it’s not just for their geopolitical impact but also for their influence on business and industry. As Hans Morgenthau, a 20th century pioneer in international relations theory, put it: “Diplomacy is the brain of national power, as national morale is its soul. If its vision is blurred, its judgment defective and its determination feeble, all advantages of geographical location, of self-sufficiency in food, raw material and industrial production, of military preparedness, of size and quality of population will in the long run avail a nation little.”

Now juxtapose Morgenthau with Nirupama Rao’s cross-border efforts —when negotiating at forums such G8 and G20, to name just two—and it becomes crystal-clear: That power doesn’t just reside with those who start or manage businesses; it also sits suitably on the shoulders of those in positions to influence the direction of business and decision-making, even protecting it. Small wonder then that Nandan Nilekani, Chairman, Unique ID Authority, says: “She (Rao) is a big supporter of Indian industry.”

Economic diplomacy has a far greater significance for India’s economic growth today than 10 years ago. India has entrusted many more women for such negotiations with the world . Two of the four secretaries in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) are women. India’s ambassadors to many of its important trade and economic-ties partners—the US, Thailand, Australia and Spain, for instance— are women diplomats. Rao holds forth on issues of global development such as fiscal stimulus, regulatory reform, climate change and emissions, all of which are game-changing for business. Then, she drives and monitors the all-important diplomatic content of all bilateral and multilateral deals struck at the World Trade Organization or in Free Trade Agreements by ministries other than the MEA. In her previous role as India’s ambassador to China, Rao oversaw the neighbour’s elevation to India’s largest trading partner. The mainstream policies towards the neighbouring countries, too, play a role in determining the pluses and minuses of India as an investment destination.

Rao is, of course, not the only woman who is part of the think-tank of India’s “national power”. Indeed, it would seem that the government has immense faith in its women officers. That’s why we have Indu Liberhan, (Indian Defence Accounts Service—IDAS—1972 batch) as Secretary Defence (Finance), who is one of those who advises on how and from where India buys its defence arms. This year, she and her team will expend roughly Rs 40,000 crore on guns, tanks, planes, vessels and missiles. There are more. The Finance Commisioner of the Indian Railways (IRAS, batch 1972) is Sowmya Raghavan. The purse strings for the Indian exchequer are in the hands of Expenditure Secretary Sushma Nath (IAS, batch 1974).

Sterling Achievements
As Principal Advisor to the telecom regular—the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)—in an earlier assignment , Liberhan headed its finance wing. Her contribution in that stint are dearest to her. “Our main job was to ensure correct calculation of cost of various telecom products so that prices in telecom could be lowered as much as possible,” she points out. The sharp drop in the price of Internet connections in India in 2006 was largely because of something Liberhan and her team achieved. They worked out the cost of undersea cables, which, she says, had never been done anywhere else in the world. The cost they worked out was much lower than what was being imagined at that point. It was legally challenged subsequently and upheld . “In the Defence Ministry, I can at best drive a hard bargain to save a few hundred crores for the country, but the work at the TRAI had a larger number of more direct beneficiaries,” she says. Indeed, broadband companies are building new markets, including rural ones where many more Indians are beginning to enjoy the fruits of more realistic Internet prices.

Another woman bureaucrat working hard to design a win-win situation for marginal land-owners in rural India and for Corporate India is Land Resources Secretary Rita Sinha (IAS, batch 1974). After the agitations against projects at Singur and Nandigram, land could well become the biggest stumbling block to industrialisation. Sinha and her team’s work on the Land Acquisition Amendment Act and the Rehabilitation & Resettlement Act could lock or unlock the supply of land to businesses. In these two legislations, she has tried to strengthen the incentives to sell and at the same time protect owners—no matter how marginal—against forced acquisition of land by the State. The Bills are stuck in Parliament for political reasons.

Clearly, most of these women have a hand in influencing business, and in some cases that hand is more visible and direct. Meera Shankar, India’s Ambassador to the US, for instance, is marketing business opportunities to be had here to investors in that land. And Foreign Secretary Rao is building an external environment conducive to business.

There is the flip side too—power that is being wielded imperfectly. The original mastermind of the disaster at Singur, the Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee, is a prime example of a woman with power that some argue had been mishandled. Banerjee has a crucial infrastructure job at hand. “The industry is waiting and watching if Banerjee is able to present a more industry-friendly face after the state elections in 2011 in West Bengal,” says Vinayak Chatterjee, Chairman, Feedback Ventures, an infrastructure consultancy. Yet, Banerjee’s presence as a foil to a noholds-barred capitalist orgy is necessary. As S. Vasudevan, Manager, KPMG Advisory Services, points out: “She may be a capitalist’s or reformist’s bête noire, but her strong and sometimes stubborn socialist ideologies have indeed tempered views on significant policy issues and helped give reforms a more human face, though on the flip side it has cost her own state dearly on industrialisation.”

The reputation for being a careful handler of power rests on Banerjee’s Cabinet colleague Ambika Soni. As the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, she has power over the builders of public opinion. In presiding over the broadcasting industry, especially the news channel segment, Soni is trying to strike a balance between the power government has over this industry and the power government would want over public opinion. More control over the industry would mean more regulation of public opinion. But it would be regressive. “Soni doesn’t take a political view on media policy; rather she has a refreshingly practical approach to the inherent conflicts,” says G. Krishnan, Executive Director & CEO, TV Today Network, which owns the Hindi news channel Aaj Tak, and which is a part of the group that publishes Business Today. Krishnan is impressed with her transparency, and her efforts to understand all sides and build consensus, which is a departure from the past. “She and her team are well prepared while holding industry meetings,” he adds.

Does a career in government entail the same challenges women in business face? The glass ceiling in government has been smashed in most quarters, but as Land Resources Secretary Sinha points out: “Uttar Pradesh has had only a single woman Chief Secretary.” Moreover, there are the usual biases with regard to intellect, ability and stereotyping. One of Liberhan’s bosses at a point refused to see her unless in presence of another person. She, however, rejects that there is extraordinary hostility to women rising in the government. Her department, the IDAS, has had and continues to have women in top positions. “A boss wanting to deliver cannot naturally be hostile to good workers whether women or men,” she says. That’s a truism that applies anywhere—when either doing business or when enabling it.

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