Just like Madison Avenue refers to the place of concentration of advertising agencies in New York, ‘K Street’ is the Mecca for lobbyists in Washington DC. The use of such lexicon is indicative of the emergence of lobbying as an accepted practice, particularly in the US.

What exactly is lobbying? It is the sustained efforts of interested parties — be it corporates, industry/trade groups, unions, NGOs, social groups, legal groups, environmental associations, etc. — to put out information amongst politicians, lawmakers and bureaucrats, with a view to influence and derive favourable governmental policy or eliminate/modify unfavourable government policy, which can result in considerable benefits for the sponsor. The practice is so widespread that in 2011 alone, 12,719 lobbyists reportedly spent $3.3 billion to influence policy in Washington. (Source: Center for Responsive Politics, http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/index.php) The investment in lobbying in the US has doubled over the last decade.

This spending should not be confused with bribery. This simply is the cost of hiring lobbyists (fees run into tens of thousands of dollars per month) and the related time and material expenses of putting together their respective cases in front of the government and law makers.

This spending excludes direct campaign contributions to candidates, political parties and Political Action Committees. The main issue with such acceleration in lobbying is that those with resources will triumph over those without resources. Like many other things, this is a big money game. This runs the risk that wrong policies that benefit a few can be pushed through at the expense of the many.

Lobbying is also confused with Public Relations (PR), perhaps because PR firms also tend to be active in lobbying. PR is the strategic and sustained efforts, mostly of corporates, to influence Media to carry favourable views on a particular issue in order to mould public opinion to influence policy.

In the ongoing battle in Parliament and elsewhere on the issue of FDI in multi brand retail, the proponents of this policy have been using the tools of lobbying (in Washington, New Delhi and other capitals) and PR aggressively to wrench open the Indian market. Neither of these practices is illegal per se in the respective home countries of the companies that have been pushing for this policy. An added layer of complexity has come with the US government lobbying the Indian government to do their bidding.

All of this places an extraordinary burden on the policy maker, to sort through the issues and arrive at what is best for our country. When the elected government starts believing the hype and falls for the pressure, then it counts as a sell-out. While lobbying can be considered routine, the response to it should not be, as it can be deeply harmful to our country.

(The author is Group CEO, R K SWAMY HANSA. Views are personal.)