The two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government from 2004 to 2014 were tumultuous for the Indian petroleum sector, as high hopes of potential self-sufficiency in petroleum products, generated from recent hydrocarbon finds, began to unravel one after another for various reasons. The approximately decade-long period provides an intriguing view on the intersection of politics—domestic, as well as international—and corporate interests jostling to get the better of the prevailing situation.
Rajeev Jayaswal, a veteran journalist, who reported on the sector during this period, has sought to capture the trajectory of the industry and the various players involved, in his book, The Lobbyists: The Untold Story of Oil, Gas and Energy Sector.
The petroleum ministry saw four ministers heading it during these years and the book endeavours to contrast the tenure of each minister. The first minister was Mani Shankar Aiyar, more recently known for his ‘chaiwalla’ comment about then prime minister-contender Narendra Modi. The book suggests that while he was brilliant at diplomacy with hostile countries like Pakistan (having been a lifelong diplomat), he was also a disaster when it came to teamwork and was a law unto himself, rubbing the foreign ministry the wrong way throughout his tenure.
Jayaswal, however, seemed to enjoy his best years with Murli Deora at the helm of the petroleum ministry, as his anecdotes suggest. Deora took over after Aiyar was unceremoniously dumped by then PM Manmohan Singh for his perceived anti-American stance, which posed a danger to the nuclear deal with the US. As per the book, Deora was adept at handling disparate and often cantankerous stakeholders of the industry. His ability to balance the equations in the ministry helped him serve the controversial ministry for nearly five years—a unique feat.
Despite all his interpersonal skills, Deora’s term wasn’t quite smooth sailing. After Aiyar, he raised the issue of ‘Asian Premium’ during Singh’s state visit to Saudi Arabia, only to be rebuked by the prime minister. Disappointingly, the book doesn’t quite elaborate on Asian Premium—Gulf countries charge Asian countries a higher rate for crude compared to western countries—but suggests that it has been spoken about unofficially. As per the book, the issue was raised even by current minister, Dharmendra Pradhan, after he took charge in May 2014.
The book also mentions two seemingly unremarkable anecdotes about the relationship between the media and the ministry, which put in perspective the current acrimonious relationship between the government and the media. As per the book, Aiyar referred to the media as ‘chor’ after allegedly being frustrated by the frequent leaks of confidential documents from the ministry. He blamed the media, although the leaks were reportedly executed by various lobbyists who belonged to private companies in the sector.
In another instance, Jayaswal recounts that the last petroleum minister of the UPA government, Jaipal Reddy, had prepared a list of beat reporters along with their photographs. His team would profile the reporters based on the questions they would ask at press conferences. The entire exercise was meant to neatly divide the reporters into corporate camps. This was the time when the atmosphere at the ministry was vitiated, and lines had been drawn between those who ostensibly did bidding for one corporate group or the other.
Despite a few revealing anecdotes, the book is not an easy or enjoyable read. The insights are few and far between, as the book relies heavily on information that already exists in the public domain. It reads more like a historian’s compilation than a veteran reporter’s work, which is expected to be full of hitherto unknown details. A large part of Jayaswal’s maiden work consists of press releases and counter press releases reproduced in full. This not only makes it cumbersome for the reader, but also makes the whole exercise somewhat futile. A summary of press releases could have got the job done, while also saving reams of paper.
Secondly, while the book promises to reveal the working of lobbyists in the sector in a way that has not been documented before, all it does is reproduce the well-known machinations of the same. Even the part about the Radia tapes fails to unearth anything that has not already been written about or discussed on various fora before.
Finally, the biggest letdown of the book could be its unprofessional approach to editing. The literature is mired with grammatical and spelling errors. It seems like the first draft submitted by the writer was sent to the printing press before it could find an editor’s desk. For a book that will set its buyer back by nearly R500, it’s an unpardonable oversight.