The debate on lobbying has heated up in recent times with legalisation and regulation presented as a solution. But, based on the experiences of countries where lobbying is currently regulated, this is not likely to be a cure-all for all related ailments.

The word “lobbying” has an archaic, peculiarly-British, etymological origin that means seeking to peddle influence, especially political and economic influence, in the corridors of power. The original lobbyists were those who thronged the hallways or lobbies of the House of Lords and the House of Commons in order to persuade Members of Parliament to support a particular point of view. Over the years, lobbying has come to signify different things to different people in different parts of the planet.

Lobbyists are variously described as “spin doctors”, “image managers”, “public relations practitioners”, “corporate affairs executives” or “representatives of advocacy groups”. Whereas lobbying is done by a wide range of individuals – from lawyers and accountants to academics, social activists or trade unionists – in?luence-peddling by those working for and on behalf of corporate interests have acquired a particularly negative connotation in India of late, especially after the private phone conversations of Niira Radia (who worked for two of the country’s richest men, Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata) entered the public domain.

The debate on the positive and negative aspects of lobbying in this country was revived recently after demands were raised by certain Opposition political leaders for an inquiry to be conducted to ascertain the recipients of funds paid by Wal-Mart that were disclosed in reports filed by the multinational corporation under the Lobbying and Disclosure Act, 1995, of the United States of America. Many contend that lobbying is not just legitimate but has its place and role in the making and shaping of laws and policies in any democracy. What is contentious is the issue of whether lobbying firms should operate within a regulated framework.

Among the countries that have “registered” lobbyists is the US. In that country’s capital, Washington DC, there are an estimated 12,000 registered firms of lobbyists (although only a few among them are said to be truly influential). These firms are meant to operate within the ambit of a complex set of rules. In actual practice, these regulations are riddled with loopholes. Not only does the American law exclude lobbyists whose “activities constitute less than 20 per cent of the time engaged in (such) services” it defines various “thresholds” of expenditure that must be recorded and disclosed. Any organization that contributes more than $10,000 towards lobbying activities in a year must be registered but an organization that spends even one dollar below this limit is exempt from the provisions of law.

Even registration entails providing very basic information and US government offices dealing with such information are reportedly understaffed. During a Senate hearing, it was pointed out that since 2003, “the Office of Public Records has referred over 2,000 cases to the Department of Justice, and nothing’s been heard from them again.”

In the case of Wal-Mart, out of 29 lobbying disclosures filed with the US Senate between 2008 and 2012, “discussions related to FDI (foreign direct investment) in India” was one among many items that were listed for lobbying. Such items included “supply chain” issues, “security”considerations, “trans-Paci?ic partnership negotiations”, “women’s economic empowerment”, “conflict minerals” and so on. How much was spent by the world’s biggest retail group on which issue and how much was given to particular persons or organizations are details that are not known because such specific information is not required to be disclosed.

The question of “legalizing” lobbying in India is raised from time to time. However, in the opinion of this writer, this is a largely irrelevant issue. Why? Lobbying has happened and will continue to take place whether or not such activities are legally regulated, however imperfectly. This is not to imply that corporate conglomerates or interest groups should invariably be allowed to influence government policies and decisions by legislators, bureaucrats or regulatory authorities. The dark side of lobbying is that people with inordinate power successfully subvert the law by tilting it against the interests of many to favour a few. When this happens, and it does often indeed, it is a form of corruption even if we choose to call it by another name.

There is, of course, a more benign aspect of lobbying when various groups seek to persuade others to come round to a particular position. In a positive sense, lobbying is an essential part of the working of any community, society or nation-state. However, major problems arise when lobbying by powerful and wealthy groups is conducted in an opaque or clandestine manner. This is when the dividing line between predatory practices and struggles for justice get blurred, if not obliterated altogether, thereby presenting a clear danger to democracy. In countries (such as India) where the corrupt nexus between politics, business and crime can be strong and pervasive, the crucial issue of concern is not one of curbing lobbying but that of ensuring greater transparency in public life.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an independent journalist and an educator.