The ‘hysteria’ on ‘Corporate Lobbying’ influencing the key policy decisions of India, reverberated in the corridors of power of the Indian Parliament last week with consequent media attraction and triggering a raging public debate.
On Monday, December 10, 2012 the Upper House of the Indian Parliament reportedly expressed itshuge concern over a lobbying disclosure in the United States related to a contentious government policy decision India.
Taking part in the debate a distinguished Member of the Parliament and an eminent lawyer Mr.Ravishankar Prasad reportedly articulated, “Lobbying is illegal in India and is a kind of bribe. If Wal-Mart has said that hundreds of crores of rupees were spent on India, then it is a kind of bribe.Government should tell who was given this bribe.”
Responding to the opposition demand on this subject, the Government has already ordered a judicial probe on this allegation.
The term ‘Lobbying’ has been defined as “a form of advocacy with the intention of influencing decisions made by the government by individuals or more usually by Lobby groups; it includes all attempts to influence legislators and officials, whether by other legislators, constituents, or organized groups”.
April 21, 2012 edition of ‘The Economist’ in an article titled. “The Chamber of Secrets - The biggest business lobby in the United States is more influential than ever”, reported that ‘Americas first chamber of commerce was founded in Charleston in 1773.
Many a times the key issues of corruption, morality and ethics are being used with ‘lobbying’ activity. However, following two different perceptions remain generally associated with this terminology:
- Corporates or people with mighty socioeconomic power, by themselves or through their industry bodies, corrupt the laws to serve a self-serving agenda by bending or deflecting them away from general fairness to majority of the population.
- It gives an opportunity to defend minority interest against corruption and tyranny of the majority.
An article published in the ‘The Washington Post’ on August 14, 2011 argued that “Blame for financial mess starts with the corporate lobby” in America.
In a recent book titled, “Time to Start Thinking – America and the Specter of Decline”, the author described how the big money in America has almost completely bought over the political process along with a pen picture of the organized lobbying group continuing to wield their mighty power despite reported ban of this activity in the ‘White House’ by President Barrack Obama.
Lobbying is legal in many countries:
It is worth mentioning that lobbying is a legal activity in many countries, such as, the United States of America, Europe and Canada. In the US, many Indian companies, including the government of India have been lobbying since so many years to present their cases and argument with the American law and policy makers.
When President Obama came to power in the US, it was reported: ‘one of the first acts of the Obama administration in office was to have an executive order which prohibited the Obama Administration either from hiring lobbyists – those who had lobbied within two years of joining the administration or allowing people who had left the Obama administration to service lobbyists for two years. The idea is that you want to break the chains where there is undue influence of special interest groups upon the government’.
‘Disclosure’ required in the US:
In the US, lobbying being recognized as a legitimate business activity, the companies are required to inform all such activities through quarterly disclosure reports to the US Senate.
In America, in 2012 alone and only in Washington DC there were reportedly 12,016 active registered lobbyists, who spent a whopping US$ 2.45 Billion for lobbying activities . Similarly, as per publishedreports, there are currently an estimated 15,000 individual lobbyists and 2,500 lobbyist organizations in Brussels to seek favorable business decisions through the legislative process of the European Union.
It has been reported that in the U.S. lobbying is a huge and established industry. This is quite contrary to Indian situation, where lobbying has not been legalized and the activity, going by general perception, ‘smacks of illegal gratification and is ravished by corruption scandals like 2G scams”.
Indian corporates also lobby in the US:
- Reliance Industries (RIL): Unspecified issue
- Tata Sons:
- Ranbaxy Lab,
- The National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom )
- Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council, among others.
Some sensational recent reports:
Following are some sensational recent reports on Corporate Lobbying:
The ‘Pharma Letter’ in its in its March 29, 2012 edition reported that “New research reveals that the pharmaceutical industry lobby is spending more than 40 million Euros (US$ 53.5 million) annually to influence decision making in European Union.”
Back home ‘Live Mint (The wall Street Journal)’ reported on October 6, 2011 as follows:
“Wal-Mart has disclosed earlier, “discussion related to India FDI (Foreign Direct Investment)” as one of the issues in its lobbying with the US lawmakers in the first two quarters of 2011, during which it spent nearly US$ 4 million on various lobbying activities.”
On December 13, 2012, ‘The Telegraph‘ reported that in a recent regulatory disclosure in the United States, Walmart has stated that it spent US$ 25 million in the last four years on lobbying for, among other its hopes for “enhanced market access for investment in India”.
Not legalized in India:
As stated above, though Lobbying is considered a legal business activity in many countries, in India it is still not considered as a legally and recognized business activity. However, many industrial sectors have formed their respective associations primarily for lobbying with the government, which is generally termed as ‘advocacy’.
A recent article published in the India Law Journal titled, ‘Corporate Lobbying and Corruption-Manipulating Capital’ articulates that “lobbying is the preferred means for exerting political influence in developed countries and corruption the preferred one in developing countries. However, lobbying and corruption are symbiotic in nature as both are ways of obtaining help from the public sector in exchange for favors.”
The article further states that corporate lobbying or advocacy has expanded in India mostly as intensive briefings and presentations to the ministers and senior bureaucrats, though it is not yet recognized in a statutory or non-statutory form in the country.
Thus, right from the debate on Bofors Guns to the telephone tapes of high profile lobbyist Niira Radia related to 2G telecom scam and then Tatra trucks scam of the Indian Army and now on Walmart debate in the Parliament, one gets a clear feel that corporate lobbying falls in a grey zone under the Indian law.
Difference between ‘Lobbying’ and ‘Advocacy’:
According to the article titled, ‘Lobbying and Advocacy—Similarities and Differences, published by Charity Lobbying for the Public Interest’, when nonprofit organizations advocate on their own behalf, they seek to positively affect majority of the society, whereas lobbying refers specifically to advocacy efforts that attempt to influence policy or legislation of a country by interested groups, irrespective of its best outcome to the society.
In a very recent reported debate published on December 15, 2012 titled, “Is lobbying an acceptable business practice? “, one distinguished professional said, ‘While lobbying can be considered routine, the response to it should not be, as it can be deeply harmful to our country’.
In the same debate, another equally distinguished person commented, ‘Lobbying may be a legitimate activity subject to strict regulatory oversight in the US. But in India, it a sophisticated alibi for the more brazen bribe-giving, what with cash still ruling the roost with its subterranean links lubricating all sections of the economy.”
Not so very long ago, some consumer activists from the civil society vehemently protested against the ‘Intellectual Property Conferences’ held in India, which were allegedly sponsored by some interested groups in a guise to influence the policy makers and the judiciary of India.
It was widely reported that the consumer activists viewed these IP summits, organized by the George Washington University Law School of USA as ‘attempts to influence sitting judges on patent law enforcement issues that are pending in Indian courts.’
In a letter dated February 26, 2010 addressed to Shri Anand Sharma, Minister of Commerce and Industry of India, over 20 NGOs demanded transparency and more information on such meetings and wanted the government of India ‘to put a stop to such industry sponsored lobbying with Indian judges and policymakers to promote their own requirements for intellectual property and to lobby for either law amendments or even to plead their cases currently pending before, various courts and the Indian Patent Office.”
In raising their concerns, the civil society groups argued that the posture adopted by the lobbyists and their supporters is to “force India to adopt greater standards” of IP protection “beyond the mandatory levels” required by the WTO, which may ‘go against public health interest of India’.
The need for a middle path:
In the current volatile scenario, it is quite reasonable to expect that lobbying activities in India, especially after the current uproar in the Parliament, may come under greater scrutiny both by the media and the government. The intervention of the courts against ‘Public Interest Litigation (PIL)’ cannot also be ruled out.
However, it is also believed by many that long-term interest of India is expected to ultimately prevail in this closely watched raging debate with the acceptance of a middle path.
A strong argument in favor of lobbying/advocacy:
As stated above, there is also a strong argument in support of lobbying or advocacy, based on the following grounds:
- In a democratic country like India, people from across the spectrum, including the industries and its associations, should have the right to convey their views to policy makers.
- Lobbying should be regarded as a “fundamental basis to express a point of view”, industry included.
- Trying to influence the government is a natural process by all, including the civil society, other stakeholders and the industry alike.
Regulating lobbying activities – An option:
Considering the fast changing environment and arising out of some recent very sensational lobbying related financial/policy scams in India, as mentioned above, the moot question, as is being raised by many across the country is: “Should the government regulate lobbying activities in the country with appropriate regulations?”
The instances of ‘surrogate lobbying’ by the industries with funds coming from various parts of the world are also being raised by the civil society, media and recently by the Government. The contentious issue became the subject of a heated debate related to ‘Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant’ in Tamil Nadu.
In February 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reportedly charged that foreign NGOs for stoking protests with foreign funds at the ‘Kudankulam Nuclear power Plant’ for vested interests and ordered further investigation by the Ministry of Home Affairs to track the trails of funds.
As a result of all these developments, the Government is reportedly becoming increasingly more vigilant against direct or indirect ‘foreign hand’ through surrogate lobbying in the policy related issues of the country, against majority interest of the society. The ‘Walmart saga’ is a case in point, at this stage.
Industry observers have opined, probably many other forms of surrogate lobbying are currently operational in India, which needs to be thoroughly probed and in case of any illegal activity, the perpetrators must be brought to justice, sooner than later, whether it is related to ‘Kundamkulam Nuclear Power Plant’ or any other .
Examples of political fall-out of lobbying activities:
On June 1, 2012, FiercePharma reported as follows:
“The cat is out of the bag so to speak with the disclosure of memos today detailing the level of drug industry support for passage of President Obama’s prized healthcare reform”
It continued to state, “Big Pharma came around to support the original bill, trading about $80 billion in additional taxes and some price rebates to federal programs for an expanded pool of insured.”
Back home in India, The Outlook Magazine reported on June 6, 2010 on the political fall-out of lobbying related to 2G telecom spectrum allocation scam in India as follows:
“Since Outlook published extracts from the CD of Radia’s phone conversations (submitted to the court) taped by the I-T department and put the 140 conversations up on its website, there has been a raging debate on what they tell us about the role of lobbyists in the 2G spectrum allocation scam, how the media interplays in such a system, and how our political class and retired bureaucrats are more often than not willing partners in the game.”
“These debates do not detract from the aim of punishing the guilty behind the 2G scam; rather they raise disturbing questions we all have to answer. Who is this woman who can speak to the “highest and mightiest” in this country in this way? From where does she draw her power? And what does it tell us about our society? When ‘Outlook’ asked her, whether she would like to give her version of these recent events, Radia SMSed back: “No. Thank You.” This is her story..”
Despite a long history of regulated and legalized lobbying in the US, there are still severe criticisms even in that country about the way lobbying activities have worked there in the past so many decades. India has plenty to learn from such experiences.
In the prevailing situation within India many experts often question, whether the economic/ other critical policy decisions of the country are mostly based on what the local population would require or depend on the money power of vested interests or business houses within and outside the country to influence such decisions.
To eliminate any possibility of illegal gratification, directly or indirectly or in any other manner or form, the process of lobbying or advocacy should be made absolutely transparent for all through appropriate rules and regulations, legally acceptable lobbyists and an appropriate disclosure mechanism for all such related expenses, just as exists in the United States of America.
In absence of these transparent and robust measures, lobbying or advocacy will continue to be perceived not just as an illegitimate activity, but also an ignoble and dubious profession in the eyes of majority living in India.
The fantastic vocabulary of ‘Good Governance’ should not be used just for others to practice. It is a time to ‘walk the talk’ for all stakeholders, including the government to douse histrionics of various kinds like, what happened last week on ‘Corporate Lobbying in India’.
By: Tapan J Ray
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