When lobbying is legal

The recent "revelations" that Walmart paid lobbyists in the US to lobby American policymakers to influence policy regarding access to the Indian retail market have caused great indignation among our political leaders. Statements of affront to national dignity by the legal lobbying practices of "predatory" multinational firms in another country have been expressed by ruling and opposition party leaders alike. While affront is indeed warranted, is this the right target? Walmart's activities in the US, however distasteful or inimical to some Indian interests, were legally conducted and fully disclosed under the 1995 US Lobbying Disclosure Act. The rather more pertinent questions — who, when and, how did their Indian partner, Bharti, lobby in India; did other interests with different points of view gain access to this process — are curiously absent from the heated rhetoric of our political leaders. Indeed, the entire question of how corporate India lobbies for influence and at what cost to itself and to society, is not a question that our political crusaders seem keen to discuss. What this "incident" does tell us very clearly is that despite the Mundhras, the Jains and the Radias, we still rely on random chance and the legal rules and capacities of other countries to learn what is happening in our own and that indeed is a national affront. The important question this incident surely raises is, why has the reality of lobbying by special interests not been legally recognised and regulated in India in an effort to introduce at least some transparency and accountability to the process?

Lobbying in the corridors of power, whether local, national or international, is how policy is deliberated, designed, passed, implemented and adjudicated in countries around the world, including India. Business groups use a variety of tactics to gain access and influence to elected and appointed officials in positions to influence any of these stages. In addition to contributing money to political campaigns, groups in other countries share their technical expertise, provide data and information, testify in front of committees, inform and educate the public and political elite through studies, press conferences and workshops and mobilise their members to take part in rallies and communicate with their representatives. Lobbying holds both the promise of democratic participation and better policy, and the threat of corruption and a state captured by special interests. Experience from other countries shows that the policymaking culture that political institutions create significantly influences the extent to which these possibilities are realised.

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