Inside the public policy battle between Ola and Uber

Earlier this year, Ola had slammed Uber for being a foreign company, which was trying to subvert Indian laws when the two slugged it out in the Karnataka high court. Uber’s general manager Bhavik Rathod had, in a long post, asked Ola to rise above the petty differences and work towards solving a larger problem. Rathod was trying to draw attention away from the surge pricing issue, which has been a hot button topic for a while.

Both companies have realised the importance of public policy; not just to operate in India, where the law is vague and grey, but also to explain the business model to stakeholders, the potential cost benefit, and the larger public good they see in “disrupting” transportation. It was also necessary, in the aftermath of the Gurgaon rape case in December 2014, which involved an Uber driver, both Ola and Uber have been scaling efforts to ramp up their public policy activities, in New Delhi and elsewhere.

Both companies understand that transportation is an issue that the government cares about. It affects the lives of millions of people – drivers, customers, state coffers… they cannot afford to not control the outcome. Towards that, the two companies are building a team, and a vertical.

“To rely on rustics and not prepare is the greatest of crimes,” said Sun Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and military strategist.

The domestic hero

Ola introduced its public policy vertical over three years ago with a team of seven; four in Bengaluru and three in Delhi. Over time, with departures, the team was whittled down to four. It is headed by Arvind Singhatiya, vice president of corporate affairs at Ola. Singhatiya, joined the company from Metro Cash and Carry India, where he was in a similar role, heading corporate affairs and government relations in the North. Singhatiya comes from a policy background, with previous stints in industry-lobbies such as Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), the Indian Franchise Association and PHD Chamber of Commerce.

According to sources at Ola, who requested not to be named, Singhatiya currently looks after public policy outreach efforts in three zones – South, West and the East. There are two other policy officials in the North, based out of Ola’s office in Gurgaon. Varun Singh Parihar, who first joined the company in Bengaluru after a six-year stint at FICCI, only to move to the capital a few months later.

In Delhi, Parihar is supported by Ganesh Pandey, who has been with the team since it began operations. In 2013. Pandey is regarded as one of the old hands in the transportation industry, especially when it comes to rules and regulations, having previously worked with other radio-taxi companies in the city. Pandey’s role, owing to his knowledge of the Motor Vehicle Act, is considered critical, especially in dealing with the lower-rung transport officials in the ministry.

In December 2015, Ola roped in Joy Bandekar as corporate president (new initiatives) from Flipkart, where he held a similar role. Prior to Flipkart, Bandekar was the head of corporate affairs for Medi Healthcare and eBay. Interestingly, he’s also served in government in two short, but consecutive stints, first as an officer on special duty (OSD) in the Ministry of Agriculture, Shipping and Civil Aviation between 2000 and 2003, before joining the Goa Government as an OSD to then chief minister, and now defence minister Manohar Parrikar. As corporate president, Bandekar oversees the functioning of the public policy team at Ola.

The challenger

Uber is anything but new to policy challenges. In its short yet aggressive existence, Uber has cried foul with civic and government authorities across the world. For the San Francisco-based company, public policy (and lobbying) has always been an integral part of its global business approach. Its experience in China, where Uber had to admit defeat and retreat, would’ve only taught it the importance of being in close touch with the Government of India.

Last month, Uber appointed Shweta Rajpal Kohli as its head of public policy. For those unfamiliar with her name, Kohli has been a career political reporter, first with print outlets like the Indian Express, Business Standard and Hindustan Times and later with television channel NDTV, where she worked for 11 years as its economic affairs editor.

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