If Niira Radia did what she did today in the early 1870s, she would still be called a lobbyist. The practice is not new and neither is the use of the word lobbying. One version is that it began during that decade when US president Ulysses S. Grant used to walk from the White House to the Willard Hotel ‘lobby’ to meet people who wanted to have a say in presidential matters. So was born the term ‘lobbyists’.
What is also not new is the network between journalists and lobbyists. It is common knowledge that a journalist who has never received a call from the most influential lobbyist is termed as someone who hasn’t made the cut just yet. Today, there is evidence of lobbyists having more than just access to columnists and editors. Most journalists are on the list of agencies that maintain and manage an extensive network of newshounds. So there is no point waking up to this nexus as if it never existed. It is the job of a lobbyist to influence but it is up to the journalist not to get swayed. That, especially when accompanied by an unfair quid pro quo, clearly breaches journalism ethics. But the debate today is not over the access to those who run and own media, the worry is over what kind of people have the access, what exchange takes place when lobbying happens and whether the result of such lobbying should be transparent and known to the public.
Lobbying in India today is a dirty word. For one, it appears cash has become a key negotiating weapon by lobbyists. In the good old days, it was relationships and negotiating tactics combined with small favours, but today it’s all about big money. Corrupt ways of lobbying gets work done faster. It is no longer about “influencing” change but dictating change by way of cash in many cases.
Secondly, we as a nation are still evolving and shaping laws and policies as the economy continues to reform. But maybe it is not fast enough and hence leaves scope for excessive influence. There are too many processes at the mercy of a few. Local governance is not transparent and information is not available to those affected by policy changes. Bottomline—lack of transparent processes is breeding corruption even in lobbying as lobbyists get undue access and advantage. Three, there is no informed debate on issues around which lobbying takes place. Those who want to influence policies are not willing to reveal their stand on issues nor is there a requirement in law to make such discussions a part of the annual calendar of politicians.
Now look at how it worked before 1991—lobbying was thought of as a relatively legitimate way to seek higher quotas by companies. After that, lobbying was aimed at influencing policies that were being drafted so that companies could get into new sectors. Consumers were craving for the benefits of liberalisation and few cared how they got the goodies. To imagine all changes took place without some lobbying would be foolish.
In a democracy, different points of view will always exist and corporates will differ on how a policy affects them. It is only through a legitimate route of sharing inputs that a balanced policy can be made. This is where lobbying can be justified.
Discard the term lobbying and let’s talk about pure public advocacy of issues. This can be done in a transparent manner and through legitimate means. We can adopt our own model but let’s explore the Lobbying Disclosure Act in the US which mandates a registry of all such efforts by public advocacy groups and the money they spend to make their case. It is public knowledge who they work for, who they influence and how goals are achieved. At least this will help in weeding out corruption in lobbying. The rti legislation is a good way to handle corruption if used well. Self-regulation and disclosures in media can make it public when you accept hospitality beyond a particular limit. Let politicians be mandated to take part in debates that allow all sides to make their points. Make it an open forum where groups can build public opinion on issues with the masses so that everyone who has a stake in it understands why a policy decision is taken. So when a bill hits the floor of Parliament, no hidden agenda exists.
Advocacy will remain a critical aspect of policymaking. Such a practice is necessary for a thriving democracy. And why not? Influence through advocacy needn’t be surreptitious. Just like corrupt doctors or lawyers are not reasons enough to ban their profession, advocacy is here to stay, call it by any name you may like.
(Shivnath Thukral was a journalist for 15 years and now works for the corporate sector. These are his personal views.)