Lobbying is the intention of influencing decisions made by legislators and officials; it is an attempt made by individuals or private interest groups to influence the decisions of the government. In its original meaning, it is referred to efforts to influence the votes of legislators, generally in the lobby outside the legislative chamber. Generally in politics, some form of lobbying is inevitable.
As one of the most controversial activities in modern democracies, lobbying tends to receive a lot of flak for the uninitiated. Lobbyists provide invaluable policy-related information and expertise to the government. On the other hand, if these activities are not transparent, the public interest may be put at risk in favour of specific interests of only certain individuals. At present, India does not have a law to regulate lobbying. But in the last few years, the recent development and exposure of corruption scandals involving lobbying by big businesses and influential people have increased the public pressure to devise a law to regulate the activity.
No country in the world, including India, has banned lobbying. Only a few countries, in fact, even attempt to regulate the activity in places like the US, Canada, Australia, Germany and Taiwan. These countries handle lobbying as a legitimate right of citizens. Strict rules and regulations are brought in to enhance transparency in the policymaking process rather than restricting access to policymakers. This is one of the primary reasons why the UK regulates the lobbied rather than lobbying.
The reason why lobbying is frowned upon in India is due to the misconceptions that revolve around it. Most people, including politicians and policymakers themselves, do not understand what constitutes as lobbying. For instance, during the commotion over Wal-Mart’s disclosure of lobbying activities in India, The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ravi Shankar Prasad denounced lobbying as nothing but a ‘euphemism for bribery’. In contrast to that, a private member’s Bill to regulate lobbying was recently introduced in the Lok Sabha by Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo, which defined the term lobbying as “an act of communication with and payment to a public servant with the aim of influencing" legislation or securing a government contract. The Bill required lobbyists to register with an authority and declare certain information pertaining to them and their interests.
So does lobbying the same as bribery? It’s not even though many critics term lobbying as ‘legalized bribery.’ There is a clear distinction between the two, some of which are:
The difference in intent matters. While the intent of bribery is the circumvention of an existing statute or law, lobbying is rather targeted towards changing an existing law or a law that is scheduled to be presented in Parliament.
While the law of the land bans bribery, there is no restriction on lobbying. Legitimizing and regulating lobbying is the need of the hour.
The power that is vested in the hands of the lobbyist is far more than what a briber possesses.
Based on research, lobbying tends to be more popular in the developed countries whereas bribery, which is a part of a wider nexus of corruption, is more prevalent in developing countries that suffer from wide economic disparities.
India does need a law to regulate lobbying but at the same time, it should not legitimize bribery or corrupt practices since it prioritizes private gain over the public interest. Lobbying should be defined to include only those activities that help propagate the ideals of participative democracy. A regulatory model of lobbying that suits its socio-political needs could in fact be beneficial to the policymakers of the country. Furthermore, there are several aspects to factor in while drafting the disclosure requirements. Exposing too much information or high disclosure requirements could drive lobbyists underground while on the other hand, too low penalties may not act as a sufficient deterrent for law-breakers. The Right to Information Act, 2005, also stresses and urges voluntary disclosures by public authorities. If public authorities pro-actively disclose information, it can help clear and complement the disclosure requirements under a lobbying law.
This brings us to the main question - Should it be legal for politicians to accept campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists? India needs to legitimize lobbying. But the scope and extent of lobbying need to be defined carefully and be highly regulated by the law. Although lobbying by various interest and advocacy groups is widespread in India, the general public mostly remains unaware of it unless a scandal breaks.
A stringent law to regulate lobbying could pave the way for transparency in the policymaking process. Disclosures of expenses incurred by lobbyists and financial accounts of lawmakers could make people engage in the legislative process through legitimate means. A shift to lobbying as a means of engaging with the legislative process would further the ideals of participative democracy. It is time that the Indian law should be able to incentivize lobbyists in order to identify themselves and to ensure that competing groups have reasonably equal access to policymakers.