As a nation we do not believe in disclosure of campaign finance, lobbying funds or even any gifts received by those in office. Since we don’t, our political class gets uncomfortable when information is disclosed voluntarily. We are quick to term it as illegal especially if there is money involved in the process. Can an Indian citizen have any basis for seeking answers on those who receive funds? Why will any politician or entity disclose that they accepted any money when no such rule makes it incumbent on them in our country? We are calling Walmart’s fee to a lobby firm as a bribe when in America lobbying is a legal act and such fee disclosures are the rule and are often done not yearly but even quarterly in a bid towards transparency.
BJP MPs protested in Parliament on Monday 10 December after reports that the global retail giant Walmart had been lobbying with the US lawmakers to facilitate its entry into India. The firm disclosed that it spent $25m (£16m) on lobbying, including on issues related to “enhanced market access for investment in India”.
The argument against lobbying is that it is illegal in India but there are no laws which say so. If we had indeed acted early, made it transparent, we would have known all along the money spent (and on whom and precisely on what) by Walmart or any large global or Indian organisation in a bid to push its own agenda with the government.
Lobbying is inherent in any democracy, how else should we try and convince a policy maker of a particular position? In the US, the constitution makes it legal, in India we are running away from it. A democracy cannot expect transparency if we don’t have a right to approach our elected officials on any issue. Just like a large number of groups are non-stop at work on behalf of corporate India with the government and on behalf of India with the rest of the world. It is widely considered a most legitimate way of shaping policies. For BJP to translate lobbying as bribe is misleading. What they should instead highlight is the investigation by Walmart against its Indian officials under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; maybe they will get more ammunition there.
But it isn’t just the corporates. The Indian government has been paying a fee every year since 2005 to a US firm to lobby for the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. As reported by the Daily Mail in November 2012, Washington-based Barbour Griffith & Rogers (BGR), hired by the Indian embassy, also used to seek media interviews for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and get Congressional resolutions passed in his support ahead of a US visit. Indian tech companies too routinely hire lobbying firms to get past improved visa rules for India. So if lobbying is illegal in India (though not by any rule book) does that mean Indian firms and governments can’t hire lobbyists? We seemed to have erred already in that case.
The practice is not new and neither is the use of the word lobbying. Large corporations or groups knock doors of political parties every election with lump sum contributions. Is anyone naive enough to believe it is only a one way exercise?
But debates laced with humour and sometimes mindless arguments make what Indian democracy is today. As Mohan Singh from Samajwadi Party said, “…. any attempts at lobbying would have fallen flat with his party because ‘no Samajwadi Party member can be lobbied with by Walmart, we don’t have any leader who can speak English.’”
But on a more serious note, Walmart knows its size and heritage will not make it easy to enter India. Despite FDI in multi-brand retail finally being allowed, Walmart’s been faced with ceaseless flak. Clearly, it comes with the size and the territory. I think today’s uproar is raising the bigger question — does India need to adopt some serious laws around lobbying to make it transparent and force greater disclosure on everyone’s part?