For lobbying and lobbyists to surface and take their place in the mainstream legislative process, we need a regulatory framework that controls how they enter and operate in the industry.
Lobbying and the individuals involved – some self-professed and others who have famously or notoriously earned the title of lobbyists – have recently been scorned in India. Their existence appears to have astonished some. Others have questioned their role in society and administration. And yet others are shocked by their purported influence on government machinery. Consequently, professional intermediaries, with the powers to convince, the ability to connect individuals and corporations with the government, and the skill to influence public policy have been peremptorily dismissed from the Indian decision making process.
This summary judgment, in large part, is because of the secrecy surrounding lobbying and the lack of transparency about its practices. Those passing judgment tend to overlook the fact that our elected representatives and administrative functionaries just don’t have the capabilities to keep up with the socio-economic changes in our current pluralistic society. It’s time we recognise that administrators need the assistance of industry chambers, think-tanks, NGOs, trade associations, professional associations and trade unions to assist in the policy making process.
All of these are lobbyists in their own right and play an important role in the overall legislative process, even helping to ensure that the views of certain interest groups are heard before policies that potentially affect them are drafted. Hence, rather than banning them, we need to establish a set of rules and standards for the functioning of lobbyists.
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. This should help not only in organising the lobbying industry but those registered will have the further incentive of potentially being consulted by government in future policy making. The registration can mirror some of what is prescribed internationally to include details of the individual or organisation, their background and expertise, organisations hiring their services and details of public office – if any – previously held by the individual.
The ideal place to house such registration is the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. And since the objective, at this stage, is to encourage registration, a regulator may not be necessary to monitor the process. Registered lobbyists should be encouraged to make quarterly filings about their activities and incentives – in the form of advisory roles for government assignments – can be given to those who voluntarily register and make such filings. Another effective carrot might be to give points to compliant lobbyists, something that will enhance their standing in the eyes of prospective clients.
Government officials should be prevented from registering as lobbyists immediately after retirement or upon demitting their official position. This practice is commonly referred to as ‘revolving door’ and even in countries like the United States where lobbying is accepted, if highly regulated, this practice is denounced.
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 whom they represent, the objectives of their efforts, the input they provide and how they are funded. It would also help if there is disclosure of the specific inputs that were incorporated in a particular policy, along with a brief rationale for such additions.
The existing Right to Information Act can prove to be handy in achieving this objective and compliance under the said Act can be extended to include information about ministerial and other official meetings with external interest groups.
It is hard to arrive at any form of unanimity over the legitimacy and usefulness of lobbying. There is also concern 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.
Regardless of any of the above, there is also a need to shed the ideological opposition to lobbying. It’s time to accept that the business and political landscape in India has changed and Washington-style advocacy methods based on rigorous research, Powerpoint presentations, and the assistance of industry experts for building public opinion, is the new order of the day.
In the language of a U.K. society that works to promote effective parliamentary democracy: “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 into the mainstream legislative process or remain in denial and risk that they continue to in influence policy making from the outside.