RAGHUVIR SRINIVASAN

Let's acknowledge the existence of lobbying, confer it with legitimacy and frame rules for its orderly, transparent practice.

Let's get this straight. Can any of us truthfully claim that we have never ever lobbied someone for something? Whether it is something as small as a railway reservation or as big as a seat in a prestigious school or college, or for that matter, a plum job, we have all either lobbied or been lobbied for favours.

Without getting into the details of Radiagate, this writer would like to raise two important questions: Isn't lobbying an accepted fact of life in a democracy?

If so, is it possible to bring it out of the underground, reform the practice, confer it with legitimacy and make it transparent?

Corporate lobbying

To be sure, this is not the first time that we have heard of corporate lobbying. The late Dhirubhai Ambani was known for his prowess in lobbying with the powers-that-be for policies favourable to his business.

You only have to read The Polyester Prince: The rise of Dhirubhai Ambani, by Australian journalist Hamish McDonald, to understand how government policy was influenced during the 19802 and 1990s, when Reliance Industries was growing at a scorching pace.

And it was not just Dhirubhai who lobbied; it is just that he was spectacularly successful where others failed. Almost every single business group tried to lobby for favours with the government during the licence-permit raj that prevailed till liberalisation. After all, the government held all the aces then and you had to lobby with it to ensure you had a favourable hand.

Corporate lobbying continued post-liberalisation and the stakes became bigger in a fast growing economy. The Bombay Club of Mr Rahul Bajaj, an informal group of industrialists opposed to liberalisation and the entry of multinationals, is only one example of organised corporate lobbying; to its credit, it was open and transparent.

The last few years have seen corporate lobbying organise into a profession, albeit masquerading, as PR. Ms Niira Radia is only one face of that profession and there are many more out there, of profiles high and low, but nevertheless engaged in lobbying government agencies, ministers and bureaucrats for their clients.

Legitimate activity

It is instructive to look at the scene in the US, which is well known for its lobbyists and their influence over members of Congress.

The US went through the same learning curve and the result was the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA), which recognised lobbying as a legitimate activity and framed rules and regulations for its orderly conduct.

The LDA requires lobbyists to register with the Senate Office of Public Records and, interestingly, lobbyists need to register separately for each client that they lobby for.

These lobbyists are required to file quarterly activity reports with the House of Representatives and the Senate, clearly setting out details of their clients, their interests and the public representatives they are lobbying with.

The result is total transparency about who is lobbying whom, and for what. For example, if you access www.opensecrets.org you get the complete lowdown on the prevailing lobbying scene, including names of the foremost lobbying firms and the highest spenders on lobbying, along with the amounts they have spent since 1998! Incidentally, Ernst & Young (#6) and PriceWaterhouseCoopers (#15) are among the top lobbying firms listed on the Web site and General Electric, Fedex and Pacific General & Electric are among the top corporate spenders on lobbying since 1998. Is it not possible for us to have similar legislation, at the Centre and the States, that requires corporate lobbyists to identify themselves, register with Parliament or the Legislative Assembly and file periodic reports on their activity?

The Niira Radias of this world and their corporate clients will then have to come out into the open and subject themselves to public scrutiny.

The common man and the media will then have an idea of which Minister or bureaucrat is favouring which corporate interest, going by the policy that is formulated. The policymaker too, whether a politician or a bureaucrat, will then be wary of granting outrageous favours as Mr A. Raja did.

Let's acknowledge the existence of lobbying, confer it with legitimacy and frame rules for its orderly, transparent practice.

Given that we are a democracy with the free right of advocacy, this is the only way we can prevent more Radiagates from erupting in future.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 3, 2010)
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