Monday, December 10, 2012

Lobbying is not the same as corruption!

An unnecessary controversy has broken around Walmart’s lobbying spends, some of which were directed towards securing FDI in multi-brand retail in India. As usual, our opposition has spun the meaning of lobbying to mean corruption. The same way it did a no-auctions coal policy to mean corruption. The truth as usual hardly seems to matter!

Lobbying is definied by Wikipedia as follows: Lobbying (also lobby) is the act of attempting to influence decisions made by officials in the government, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies. Lobbying is done by many different types of people and organized groups, including individuals in the private sector, corporations, fellow legislators or government officials, or advocacy groups (interest groups). In a democratic set-up when public officials are expected to listen to different viewpoints, lobbying provides one of the ways of delivering them to legislators and regulators. In Hindi, the best description is “Prachar karna” (to publicize one’s position). It is an entirely virtuous democratic process. In the UK, again as per Wikipedia: The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee argued that while there are shortcomings in the regulation of the lobbying industry in the United Kingdom, "The practice of lobbying in order to influence political decisions is a legitimate and necessary part of the democratic process. Individuals and organizations reasonably want to influence decisions that may affect them, those around them, and their environment. Government in turn needs access to the knowledge and views that lobbying can bring."

As per Wiki, in the EU currently, around 15,000 Brussels-based lobbyists (consultants, lawyers, associations, corporations, NGOs etc.) seek to influence the EU’s legislative process. Some 2,600 special interest groups have a permanent office in Brussels. Their distribution is roughly as follows: European trade federations (32%), consultants (20%), companies (13%), NGOs (11%), national associations (10%), regional representations (6%), international organizations (5%) and think tanks (1%). So lobbying isn’t a crime by any yardstick. Nor is it tantamount to corruption. In India, the first charge we make against any public official is one of corruption. That explains why this rather innocuous declaration of Walmart has created such a furore in India.

All businesses lobby with the government. They lobbied when the NDA was ruling; they continue to lobby today when the UPA is ruling. Not only businesses, diverse interest groups lobby to get their point of view across. Some of the biggest lobbyists are NGOs who petition public representatives and push their point of view. All the work that Aruna Roy and others did to have the RTI enacted would qualify as lobbying. Just like Walmart (and others) lobbied the UPA MPs for allowing FDI in retail, they must have lobbied the opposition MPs as well. Lobbying is apolitical. Lobbyists talk to everyone. Further, there must have been several anti-FDI lobbyists as well. So to make this look like the UPA ministers and MPs have been corrupted is silly and idiotic.

There is of course, as usual, no evidence that points towards corruption. So our expert opposition politicians start “connecting the dots” (that remarkable style developed to a perfection by Indian opposition leaders!) to hint that “something must be wrong”! And in a magical way, the onus of proving anything is suddenly removed! The latest strategy to press home their charge is “Let the government order a probe”. At this rate, we will soon have a special ministry dedicated to probes! In any civilized society, the one accusing would be made to give some “preliminary” information basis which someone would decide if a probe needs to be ordered or not. Out here, the only preliminary information is the officially declared and publicly available declaration by Walmart to the US Senate. Walmart has denied that there were any bribes paid in its lobbying effort. The US law specifically debars bribing. And yet, our opposition leaders – in search of something to pin a resurgent government back – would like a probe to be ordered.

But then for the opposition in general, and the Left and BJP in particular, this has been a season of setbacks. Not only have their attempts at blocking FDI in retail failed, their attitude towards Parliament has been questioned by media and others. In the case of the BJP, there has been acute embarrassment in the form of charges against Gadkari, as well as the demand by Yeddy to dissolve the Karnataka assembly. The 2G “scam” has been proved to be anything but, and even the coal issue is going nowhere – with the government handling the issues in a mature, sensible manner. Politically, the BJP is feeling isolated – with both Mamata and Mayawati directly accusing BJP of being an unreliable partner. Worse, it is finding itself in the company of the Left, which itself must be feeling worried about the fallouts of this sudden friendship! A bitter and cussed BJP wants to whip up some scammy froth in the hope that some of it may splash and stick to the Congress.

The real truth is that as the relationship between the Congress and the BJP worsens, more and more such issues will be tossed in the air in the hope that some of them may yield political dividends. In any case, the public at large thinks all politicians are corrupt; so there is a chance such issues will stick. It’s only in India that every political party accuses every other party of being corrupt! Specific to this Walmart lobbying issue, it’s a legal business process followed in accordance with the US law. It is nothing more, nothing less.

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