The first India assignment for Nira Radia, who was fascinated by airplanes, was to smoothen the entry of Singapore Airlines to India in 1990s.
That project failed to take off, but it introduced her to two important personalities — then aviation minister Ananth Kumar and Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group, which was to be Singapore Airlines’ Indian partner.
Never the one to be put down, Radia created ripples in the aviation ministry in 2000 when she applied for a license to start an airline under her own firm with a capitalisation of all of Rs1 lakh. Ananth Kumar was the aviation minister at that time. But it was a controversial project and her application was rejected. Later, Kumar was moved out of the civil aviation ministry.
However, it was her second meeting with Ratan Tata that became her a biggest stepping stone as a businesswoman. Tata was so impressed with her that he appointed her to manage the corporate communications of the Tata group — leading to the birth of Vaishnavi Corporate Communications in 2001. For many years, Vaishnavi’s main client remained the Tata group, so much so that that it was mistaken for being a Tata firm.
Radia, who grew up in Kenya and holds a British passport, transformed her prized catch into a magic wand that opened bigger doors. Soon, she had a client list that comprised 50 big companies. Then, she had the most powerful industrial baron in India, Mukesh Ambani, in her kitty, who was looking for some kind of assistance in media management in 2008-09.
In between, she also allegedly got involved with the issue of new 2G licenses in 2008, partly because her own client — Tata Teleservices — stood to gain or lose from how the licenses were issued.
Radia was at the peak of her power in 2009-10 — with a mandate to manage the media and lobbying requirements of the country’s two richest and biggest corporates. Her various firms are estimated to generate annual revenues of anywhere between Rs100 to Rs120 crores, though hard figures are tough to come by.
A decade after she entered the ‘relations’ business, Radia seems to be the most powerful ‘influencer’ — counting such luminaries as former TRAI chairman Pradip Baijal, former economic affairs secretary CM Vasudev, former DIPP secretary Ajay Dua and former TRAI member DPS Seth among her associates.
(With inputs from Pankaj Sharma)