L’affaire Nira Radia — in which the lobbyist concerned reportedly plumped for appointment of industry-picked candidates for important ministries — died with a whimper, with a section of the intelligentsia even accepting that lobbying is kosher.
Now, the apologists for the Congress party as well as for Wal-Mart argue that there was nothing wrong in the latter engaging the services of Patton Boggs — the same firm whose services were engaged by the Indian government to tame resistance to the Indo-US nuclear deal in Capitol Hill — to quell resistance to FDI in multi-brand retail in India. It is said that there is nothing wrong in lobbying, so long as no illegal gratifications are offered.
But how is anyone in India to find out how much out of the Rs 125 crore admittedly spent by Wal-Mart on lobbying in India was on benign hospitality expenses and how much went towards brazen and not-so-brazen bribe-giving?
The euphemism ‘education expenses’ used by Enron certainly did not fool anyone.
But then, in a country infested as much by corruption as by terrorism, aren’t illegal payments a necessary evil?
This was, indeed, the question asked by Goodlass Nerolac before the Bombay High Court when the huge amounts withdrawn from its bank accounts for greasing itchy palms were disallowed by the tax authorities. To the plaintive plea that bribes have been institutionalised in India and without payment of speed money bills cannot have been passed, the Court offered a sympathetic rebuff.
But when the tax tribunal in Assam gave its thumbs up to the extortion money paid by Tata Tea to the ULFA, the government scurried to amend the income-tax law retrospectively to give thumbs down for such expenses. Can the government, which frowns upon bribes in income tax assessments, have a different take on matters where only a thin line divides bribe-giving and lobbying?
Some aver lobbying is nothing but an aggressive and intense form of persuasion. Don’t political parties sell their manifestoes to the electorate?
Don’t those who are arraigned before courts engage lawyers to plead their cases?
Well, nobody stops Wal-Mart from organising seminars to sell the idea of multi-brand retail to Indians. But if it can explain away its Rs 125 crore expenditure cryptically as education expenses as Enron did, there would be disbelief.
Let’s not delude ourselves that lobbying is about incurring of harmless expenditure on hospitality by a suave lobbyist in a well-appointed restaurant.
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.
(The author is a Delhi-based chartered accountant)