In the face of all the negative press on lobbying, it is easy to lose sight of its role in educating and informing policymakers. The problem is not with lobbying per se but with the practices currently associated with it. Concerted industry action and thinking beyond one’s interests will help lobbying evolve to a point where it is both legally and socially accepted in the country.
Lobbying is prevalent in India today and has been since before Independence. In a recent article, Nitin Pai of the Takashila Foundation, an independent public policy think tank, suggested that the famous Salt Satyagraha Movement started when statistics on salt consumption were presented by an industrial group to a Congress Party leadership on the lookout for a rallying point in the freedom struggle.
The difference between that historical case and what happens in modern day India lies in motivation. Mahatma Gandhi, his peers and the group that approached them were spurred to act for a common public cause. Lobbying today is rarely characterised by such selfless behaviour. Every time lobbying surfaces now, it comes attached with negativity – fixing, scams, bribery, corruption, the furthering of vested interests. And as we try to penetrate the murky air around it, we begin to question the very legitimacy of and need for lobbying.
That is unfortunate because lobbying is a normal and essential process in a representative democracy. Without it, policymakers will be hard pressed to stay informed of all the aspects of a given business project or scenario, or the rami?ications of an economic event. When policy decisions are made on the basis of incomplete information, it can lead to a cascading set of problems for an entire industry or economy.
Nor is lobbying restricted to the for-profit business community. NGOs engage the government with their viewpoints on climate change, education or poverty amelioration to the same degree that corporations push for business-friendly tax and policy reforms. But, at its core, lobbying should support and promote the common good, an idea that may seem alien in the current environment.
Several of the recent cases highlighted in the media have hinged on advancing narrow individual agendas. Since lobbying has neither legal standing nor defined restrictions in the country, businesses resort to any means necessary to push their cases through. It is this kind of shortsighted and self-serving approach that contributes to the malaise in the system.
Industry bodies can help alleviate the problem to some extent. For instance, organisations such as the CII and Nasscom help members internally resolve looming problems and conflicts. The items that then find their way to the desks of policymakers tend to be about sweeping issues that affect the entire industry, rather than individual players.
Industry bodies can also help make the process more democratic by giving members more uniform access to the corridors of power. It may still not place smaller players at par with corporate behemoths on the national stage but it will certainly help to even out gross inequities at the regional and local government levels. Currently, there are several associations that represent small and medium businesses and they are a key force in highlighting relevant issues with policymakers, if not in driving major policy changes.
But the systemic challenges are many, with opportunism – in government and in business – being one of the biggest ones. For many of the country’s politicians, politics has become a profession of inheritance and entrenchment of power. For these individuals, kickbacks and donations are an essential part of their political funding strategy.
On the flip side, industrialists and business groups support them financially, not because of any shared political ideology, but because they want to secure their own competitive positions in the business world.
Adding transparency to the system will certainly help. If lobbying can be made legal, subject to stringent reporting requirements, we would be in a position to uncover and slowly weed out all these unethical practices. Industry bodies can serve as the role model for such a framework.
Most maintain a painstaking record of all the points submitted to the government during the course of any lobbying activity. They also keep track of how many of these points were considered in subsequent policy actions. These and related practices based on transparency should be used to draft the rules on future, organised lobbying.
All of this calls for a significant shift in mindset as well as for substantial legislative intervention. For now, however, we need to expose the ‘fixers’ and socially ostracise the violators. The fact that there are a growing number of voices and movements against corruption – the Anna Hazare movement, the daily exposes in the media, Kejriwal’s activist party – is encouraging. We can choose to be cynical and question their immediate effectiveness but, in the long run, these are all steps in the right direction. The generations coming up behind us are also more politically engaged and unwilling to settle for old ways of doing business. With their involvement, we can sustain the momentum of these movements.
At the end of the day, lobbying remains a necessary activity that has been tainted by the practices associated with it. It needs to break free of these to be recognised for what it is and to get its rightful place in our political infrastructure. Some of these solutions may take time to frame and implement but we have to start thinking about them now.