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Does India Need Lobbyists?

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In America lobbying is a legal profession, and have laws protecting the lobbyist. But in India with corruption being on such a rampant scale, do we really need lobbyists?

By Deepshikha Singh

Nira Radia Lobbying and lobbyists have been scorned in India. Their survival appears to have surprised some. Their responsibility in civil society and administration has been questioned by others, and their alleged influence on the government machinery has left many shocked. Therefore, skilled mediators, with the influential powers to convince, the ability to connect individuals/corporations with the government and the skill to manipulate public policy appear to have peremptorily been released from the decision making process in India.

Before we demonise these individuals let us sketch the birth of lobbyists and try to understand the reasonable role these influential individuals/organisations play in some of the more politically advanced countries. It may perhaps also be supportive to analyse the legislation which at present exists and regulates the operation of these powerbrokers in western countries and attempt to establish if similar legislation could be introduced in India to observe their reach. The ultimate objective is to judge, what role, if any, exists for lobbyists in Indian democracy.

Lobbyist sketch

Lobbying is the act of attempting to influence decisions made by officials in the government, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies. Lobbying is done by many different types of people and organized groups, including individuals in the private sector, corporations, fellow legislators or government officials, or advocacy groups (interest groups). Lobbyists may be among a legislator’s constituents, meaning a voter or bloc of voters within his or her electoral district, or not; they may engage in lobbying as a business, or not. Professional lobbyists are people whose business is trying to influence legislation on behalf of a group or individual who hires them.

In our country where lobbying is not considered a preferred profession, chances are that anyone venturing into the field would be considered undesirable contact men (UCM). UCM are persons who are regularly checked by the agency and through whom government officials are not meant to “cooperate, mingle,” or enter into any contracts with. They have worked silently in the corridors of power in New Delhi, shaping and reshaping policies to benefit their clients for deals running into hundreds of crores.

A successful lobbyist has a broad network of contacts. Several have worked through leading public relation companies and make a name for them in the market. They are as well active in administration circles and have the benefit of the confidence of top bureaucrats and middle-rung officials. Nearly all big industries have arrangements with UCM but they uphold a highly regarded face—through the official public relations officer. The filthy work is left to easy-to-disown outsider.

How lobbyists are poison for democracy in India

In several recent developments, lobbyists have come to acquire massive power, to the point of influencing the choice of a Cabinet minister, nominating key bureaucrats, and formulating economic and industrial policies at the nuts-and-bolts level. There are other instances also of lobbyists intrusively snooping with policymaking processes, political party affairs and parliamentary dynamics in ways which would have been impossible only years ago.

Not to be unseen is the clout that lobbyists wield in armed forces contracts, agribusiness, seeds, civil aviation, and opening up retail trade to organised business, including multinational hypermarket chains like Metro, Carrefour and Wal-Mart.

Corporate lobbying has become the highest embodiment of crony capitalism in India. Some companies started as straightforward public relations firms, but have diversified into corporate advocacy and lobbying. Others, like Niira Radia’s Vaishnavi, Neucon and Noesis, Suhel Seth’s Counselage, or Deepak Talwar’s DTA Associates, were launched with corporate lobbying as their core business. In addition, there are person entrepreneur-lobbyists like MPs Amar Singh and NK Singh, who work for different clients.

Since India is rapidly growing globally and vigorously pursuing neoliberal policies, full-size Business today has an excellently bigger stake than in the past for securing bonus contracts. So much for the much-vaunted “free market”!

Currently, lobbying is about recruiting as many retired top-ranking public servants as possible so they can influence their former colleagues and juniors on their clients’ behalf. This harmful practice should be banned and punished.

Future of Lobbying in India

An additional feature of the new-generation business lobbyists are their strong global connections. Business lobbying is far more dangerous and commercially collusive than the politician-criminal nexus. It’s also much extra damaging at the national level. Lobbyists introduce irrational and irrelevant elements in decision-making and challenge the public interest. They add exclusively to sleaze, venality, pessimism and corruption in the entire polity.

Way back during the 1980s, the Indian political class approved the corrosive position of lobbyists in armed forces contracts and in total banned middlemen from defence purchase negotiations.

However at present it has succumbed to that very pressure on a gigantically greater scale—not just in the armed forces contracts, although in every sphere. Except this poisonous power be removed, and lobbying forbidden and punished, it will weaken and hollow out Indian democracy, our most expensive possession. Democratic system must be protected against business exploitation and greedy business lobbying.

Comparison

In U.S.A, lobbying is a massive, recognized business unlike India which requires lawful lobbies and is full of bribery scandals. The capability of individuals, groups, and corporations to lobby the government is sheltered by the right to petition in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the lobbying market. Lobbying can be a substitute for, or a complement to, corruption. The difference strikes out when American govt. appoints lobbyists for U.S. airlines who work on taxes, regulation, infrastructure and market access while a similar situation in India would have seen a civil aviation scam or an Indian airlines corruption scandal with lot of private parties (business magnets) involved and lack of policy making from lobbyists.

As global corporations woo a billion customers, there are tax breaks and contracts to be wrested from Indian officialdom. Some companies still get them by corrupt means, covering their tracks with middlemen, as some foreign managers acknowledge in private and as high-profile Indian media investigations have alleged. But many companies are turning to lobbyists who use subtler tools of influence, partly out of fear of anti-bribery laws which threatens jail time even for chief executives if they let workers pay bribes overseas.

But if thought from a contrary point, replacing one evil with another is not a perfect solution. Lobbying itself is heavily regulated as it is very easy for a lobbyist to stray into bribery, the most direct way to influence legislation, obviously, is to bribe enough law makers to ensure that the bill you support passes. It is of inconspicuous harm to both private and public sectors but yet better compared to grass root corruption. Leave alone the 2020 dream India vision, we are still among the top 70 countries corruption list and when reality calls, we have to answer - either lobbying or the resident evil - corruption. Public opinion always makes the difference.

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