The Lobby Against Lobbying

Updated: Dec 26, 2012, 14:37 PM IST

Shobhika Puri

The recent passage of the bill for allowing FDI in Retail was marred by political bickering, parliament disruptions, walkouts, consideration of the no-confidence vote, numerous media debates, obvious backhand dealings, and public posturing by politicians with an eye on the next general elections. If all this mayhem, back-and-forth, confusion, delay, and uncertainty wasn’t enough, a new dimension was recently added – lobbying.

A recent report by the retail giant, Wal-Mart that it had spent USD 25 million over four years for lobbying to help gain access to non-American markets including India, created a lot of stir back home. Instead of appreciating the transparency, opposition parties like the BJP started asking how and where did all this money go in India? It conveniently labelled this act as bribery. The best or in fact, the worst part is that all these people, who have been in politics for decades, feigned ignorance about such practices until the so-called confessional report came, ironically, from the accused itself.

So, what is so wrong about lobbying, a practice considered legal in many countries? Lobbying is the act of trying to influence the decisions and policy-making of the government for, or against a certain cause, or interest. In a democracy like India, is it not a right of all individuals including corporations, to express their views to the government on certain policy decisions that may directly, or indirectly affect them? In fact, is it not the duty of the government to consult the people who are at the receiving end? As a matter of fact, consultation with experts makes government policies more effective. This brings us to the moot question – what is then the ruckus all about? What wrong has Wal-Mart done to merit yet another probe? What wrong has the Indian government allegedly done to merit yet another allegation?

To answer this fundamental question, one needs to look around to evaluate the various activities that have been taking place, for time immemorial.

Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India, would not have become the President had he not pushed for his case in front of the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi; the principal opposition party, the BJP; and its die-hard critic, Mamata Banerjee. So, what would this activity be termed as – advocacy, or public relations, or marketing, or campaigning, or promotion, or the now-dreaded-term: lobbying?

Another widely accepted norm in democracies is that of election campaigning. What do politicians in India do every five years? Do they not try to influence the voters for voting in their favour? Do they not spend crores of rupees on their campaigns? Do they not give out free gifts in the name of social good? Can this not be termed as lobbying?

Many times, media houses take a stance in favour, or against certain public issues, or government policies with an aim to mobilize public opinion in their favour. The recent case of extensive media coverage for altering rape laws, is a case in point. Does this not tantamount to lobbying?

In India, there are various industry associations like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM); many women groups like the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), and the National Commission for Women (NCW); etc. In fact, there are a plethora of organisations, or associations for all sorts of interest groups like widows, children, orphans, gays, etc. What is the objective of these associations? Just one – to look after the interests of their members. How do they achieve this objective? By taking the voice of their members to the right ears, in most cases which is the government. Needless to say, is this not akin to lobbying?

Now, coming to the corporate world. Sales pitch, advertisements, marketing, public relations, and roadshows before IPOs, are all legitimate corporate activities, widely accepted and practiced by all. Are these activities not aimed at convincing the target audience of the offerings of the corporations? In other words, are these activities not on the lines of lobbying?

One should not think that lobbying is restricted to organized groups. Even individuals try to influence others in their favour. For example, at an interview, a candidate tries to convince the interviewer about the suitability of his/ her candidature. Come to think of it, we all are advocating, or influencing, or convincing all the time for the smallest of things like selling a used car, to the biggest of things like marriage.

The current opposition to lobbying is owing to the fact that it is being equated to bribery. The basic premise of this argument is flawed. Bribery is an illegitimate activity that is never disclosed by any organisation, or individual. It is under-the-table and always behind closed doors. If an organisation does declare some funds allocated for influencing public policies, it is not by accident. It is always a well thought-out and a well-planned activity that is widely accepted, and is prevalent even in countries like India, where it is not legal yet. As unfortunate as it may sound, bribery has existed and will exist whether or not, lobbying is made legal in India. The former has no relation to what is allowed, or considered good.

It is high time that the politicians started focussing on issues that matter and stopped scoring brownie points. The recent debate on FDI in Retail had anyways become a political drama with some politicians speaking against the bill in one house and voting for it in the other; some politicians being in favour of it when in power and opposing it when not; some politicians using it as a springboard for the next general elections; and, the drama continues with the lobbying debate.

There is a thin line between advocacy, lobbying, and bribery even though their underlying objective remains the same – to influence opinion in one’s favour. Is it not high time that we encourage transparency in such activities because the fact remains, whether we like it or not, these things have been happening since ages and will continue till eternity. Transparency is often considered as the best disinfectant. Therefore, it becomes a must-have against the political termite slowly eating our country.

Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name?” However, in the current circumstances, it seems everything is ‘in the name’. Whether the term, ‘lobbying’, gets replaced by another term or not, the act will continue. Hence, a sincere request to the politicians: let us not get lost in the semantics. Genuine and graver issues are waiting to get an ear. Lobbying can wait.

(Shobhika Puri is a freelance writer)