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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC

Blackwill factor in US lobbying firm deal

September 17, 2005

The Government of India has hired the Washington, DC-based lobbying firm of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers to lobby US Congress on behalf of the nuclear deal signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush during the former's July visit to Washington.

Former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill heads up the firm.

Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, which says its USP is a proactive, creative approach to problem solving, is known for its strong connections with the Republican Party and the White House.

Writing in The Washington Post last year, Thomas B Edsall noted 'In less than a decade, the Barbour Griffith and Rogers lobbying shop has become one of the most profitable operations in Washington.'

A senior Indian embassy official told rediff India Abroad, Blackwill's position, as the firm's president, did not influence the choice.

"He had nothing to do with (the negotiations)," the official said, pointing out that per his service rules, Blackwill -- till recently a part of the Bush administration -- is banned from any lobbying activity till the end of his prescribed year-long cooling period.

He was not in the meetings—not at all," the official emphasised.

Industry sources, including some with other lobbying firms such as Verner Liipfert, now Piper Rudnick, that represented India a few years ago and Akin Gump, India's last lobbying firm, which was dumped last year, were sceptical.

"Maybe not officially, but unofficially there is no doubt that he was pushing it," one such source said. "The only reason that Barbour Griffith took him on as president was because they expected him to deliver the India account."

Verner Liipfert and Akin Gump were paid $600,000 a year, a sum considered negligible by lobbying firms that demand and get multimillion dollar reimbursements; yet both firms lobbied intensely to land the India account this time round.

"India is such a prestigious account," said the source, part of a firm that actively lobbied for the account, "and more so today than it has ever been, because of the growing ties between the US and India and the high profile India enjoys today. It is a major boost for a lobbying firm to have the India account. A firm would have it even if it doesn't pay much."

Embassy officials said the decision to go with BG&R was a judgment call, based on the perception that it was the firm best suited to further India's interests. The source would not, however, go into details of the selection process and the remuneration package, on the grounds that it was confidential for now.

Once the deal is signed, he said, all such information would be made public when the firm, as required by law, registers with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent.

Interestingly, Ambassador Ronen Sen in conversations with this correspondent had dismissed the concept of hiring a lobbying firm. "I don't need door-opening," Sen said on more than one occasion. "I can just pick up the phone and talk to them (Senators and Congressmen)."

The change in thinking, embassy officials said, was because the government felt that "at this point of time, when we have a rich agenda of things to achieve in the relationship, it will be useful to have that kind of partner."

Sources indicate that Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran had pushed for the appointment of Blackwill's firm with External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh and with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The final decision was taken during Sen's trip to New Delhi last month.

Blackwill, the public face of the firm, is arguably the biggest Indophile among erstwhile American ambassadors to New Delhi, and is in the habit of referring to 'Mother India' in his speeches.

He has strenuously argued the case for India being given a permanent seat in the UN Security Council -- a fact that makes him the darling of Indian American community groups as well as the US-India Business Council.

In recent times, he has produced timely, well-placed op-ed pieces on the importance of India as a strategic ally in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal.

When Prime Minister Singh and President Bush announced the signing of a nuclear deal in July, newspapers including the Washington Post suggested that Blackwill had convinced his one time protégée, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to push the President into signing the deal, which effectively recognises India as a de facto nuclear power.

Blackwill's recent career has been checkered. After his stint as American envoy to New Delhi from 2001 to 2003, he served as Special Assistant to the President for Strategic Planning, and later as the White House point man on Iraq in the National Security Council.

Speculation held that he would take over as National Security Adviser in Bush's second term -- but Blackwill abruptly resigned to join BG&R as its president in November 2004. While he is universally seen as a temperamental boss with an abrasive management style, the likes of strategic affairs expert Ashley Tellis, who served under him at the embassy after quitting Rand Corporation, say he is a brilliant strategist. Tellis and others say it was Blackwill and Douglas Feith, then Under Secretary of Policy at the Pentagon, who were the catalysts behind the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership Initiative between India and the United States.

On his last day at the White House, Blackwill represented the President at the Diwali function hosted by the White House. At the time, he declared that the administration would not provide F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan. When the announcement of the US sale of F-16s to Pakistan came through a few weeks later, the perception was that Blackwill was out of the loop vis-à-vis Rice, and that he would be of no utility value to India as a lobbyist. Blackwill, however, rehabilitated himself with, among other things, some well-timed opeds in the mainstream media.

BG&R was, till 1999, headed by former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, now the governor of Mississippi. The firm was sold to the Interpublic Group of Companies in 1999. The name BG&R was retained as part of the deal, though Barbour no longer had a financial stake in the company. India will become its first major foreign country client. Till date, its foreign clients have been the Embassy of Honduras and the government of Qatar. In July 2004, the Kurdish Democratic Party retained BG& R 'to ensure that Iraqi Kurdistan maintain its autonomy from Baghdad in the new Iraq government.'

The firm, however, represents major domestic and multinational conglomerates including BellSouth Telecommunications Inc, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, Canadian National Railway, Cobalt Corporation, Delta Air Lines, GlaxoSmithKline, Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, Intelsat, Lockheed Martin, Lucent, Pfizer, the University of Mississippi, the Illinois State Board of Education, and the state of Kentucky.


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