Why does the term lobbying always evoke such strong reactions? Why do we scorn at lobbyists and rush to term them as ‘fixers’? Why are we in denial about their existence in India and why do we constantly question their role in public administration? Why does their purported influence on government machinery shock everyone and why do we always peremptorily dismiss the role of lobbyists in the Indian decision making process?
Contrary to what some may lead us into believing, lobbying is not an illegal activity and is currently not banned in India. In fact, lobbying is a legitimate part of the democratic process, is more widespread than presumed to be and helps ensure that the views of certain interest groups are heard before policies that affect them are drafted.
Admittedly, we all criticize interest groups, but each of us belongs to one based on our ethnicity, gender, age economic standing, educational background or profession. The reality is that some groups are better funded, better organized or just better represented than others. Our parliamentarians attempt to represent all of the interests within their constituencies, but they must establish priorities. Lobbyists are professional intermediaries who help define the priorities by reminding the parliamentarians of the needs of specific groups.
It’s important to dispense with the misgivings that lobbying is a ‘bad’ thing. Lobbying is not just about wining-and-dining our legislators or bureaucracy. Quite the opposite, its serious business and requires skill and hard work. The reality is that our elected representatives and administrative functionaries just don’t have the capabilities to cope with the socio-economic changes and aren’t equipped to address the demands of our pluralistic society. They are compelled to call for the assistance of industry chambers, think-tanks, NGO’s, trade associations, professional associations and trade unions. Each one of these is a lobbyist in their area of business. In fact, governments also carry out lobbying activity through its foreign emissaries and case in point is the Indian government engaging the services of a lobbying firm to garner support on Capitol Hill during the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal. Most recently, there have been reports of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi hiring the services of a U.S. lobbying firm.
Let’s accept that the business and political landscape in India has changed and Washington-style advocacy methods based on rigorous research, accompanied by power-point presentations and seeking assistance of industry experts for building public opinion is the new order of the day. Then why do we in India still squirm at the talk of lobbying?
Simple as it may sound – the problem is not lobbying, but, the secrecy attached to it and the inability to monitor the functioning of these powerful individuals.
A start needs to be made by requiring that all those who have a significant impact on policy development register themselves. The registration process needs to be mandatory and enforced by statute and this should help in not only organizing the lobbying industry in India but can also be an incentive to those registered to be consulted in policy making. The registration can mirror some of what is prescribed internationally to include details of the organizations hiring their services and details of public office, if any, previously held by the individual.
Equally important is the right of the general public to know about the relations between interest representatives and policy makers. Lobbyists and those who seek to contribute to the policy development must at a minimum disclose who they represent, the objectives of their efforts, the input they provide and how they are funded.
One acknowledges that there is no unanimity over the legitimacy and usefulness of lobbying. There is also fear that the interests of those who do not have the money or influence to hire lobbyists may not be appropriately represented in the democratic process. Hence, any proposed regulatory system needs to maintain a balance so that select business groups, regardless of their political contributions, do not wield disproportionate influence over policy making.
As a U.K. society that works to promote effective parliamentary democracy said “it is necessary to move beyond debates about the relative legitimacy or illegitimacy of lobbying in itself. Instead, it is important to focus more directly on whether the organisations, the public increasingly looks at to represent their views in the political process are transparent and accountable and bound by common standards of good practice and ethical conduct. When conducted in such a way, lobbying may enrich our parliamentary democracy by providing new and diverse channels through which different groups and the wider public might feed into the democratic system.”
The choice in India is now ours on whether we want to invite these powerful individuals away from the lobby into the main stay of our legislative process or be in denial and risk that they continue to influence policy making from outside.
Satvik Varma is an advocate based in New Delhi & an Aspen India Leadership Fellow.
First Published in The Economic Times on 12.12.12.