Will legalizing 'lobbying' prevent corruption in India?

By Renjith VP, SiliconIndia   |   Tuesday, 30 November 2010, 01:40 Hrs   |    16 Comments
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Will legalizing 'lobbying' prevent corruption in India?
Bangalore: Corruption is something which every Indian is familiar with, just like his mother tongue. Now, when I say lobbying and its increasing effect on policy making in the country, surely a questioning eye brow and a sharp stare will barge in from here and there. But before we give a thought about lobbying as a practice which can check a corrupt democratic setup like ours, we should definitely understand the contours at which corruption and lobbying differs.

Though used interchangeably with corruption, it can refer to a form of advocacy with the intention of influencing decisions made by legislators and officials in the government by individuals or groups. Indeed one could argue that lobbying is just a special form of corruption focused on legislative bodies or some other rule-making agency. However, there are some important differences between lobbying and corruption. They centre on the notions that corrupt practices are illegal, that corruption activities tend to involve bribes or illegal payments and, arguably the most important difference, that corrupt practices tend to directly benefit a small number of 'users' (often one individual) while lobbying activities are carried out in order to benefit a group of users that share a specific interest.

In U.S., lobbying is a huge, established industry unlike India which lack legitimate lobbies and is ravished by corruption scandals like 2G scams. The ability of individuals, groups, and corporations to lobby the government is protected by the right to petition in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the lobbying market is worth $3.5 billion. Every year the U.S. govt. allows about 2000 lobbyists based on their expertise. Interestingly, since 1998, 43 percent of the 198 members of Congress who left government to join the private sector have registered to lobby using the 'revolving door of influence'. There are now an estimated 15,000 lobbyists who have put down their roots in Brussels, striving for their voice to be heard by the EU.

The fact that lobbying is mainly aimed at policy-making institutions rather than the bureaucracy brings up another major difference thus making lobbying an activity that makes bribing irrelevant if it succeeds in influencing policy and an activity that makes bribing easier if it succeeds in undermining law enforcement. In other words, lobbying can be a substitute for, or a complement to, corruption. The difference strikes out when American govt. appoints lobbyists for U.S. airlines who work on taxes, regulation, infrastructure and market access while a similar situation in India would have seen a civil aviation scam or an Indian airlines corruption scandal with lot of private parties (business magnets) involved and lack of policy making from lobbyists.

As global corporations woo a billion customers, there are tax breaks and contracts to be wrested from Indian officialdom. Some companies still get them by corrupt means, covering their tracks with middlemen, as some foreign managers acknowledge in private and as high-profile Indian media investigations have alleged. But many companies are turning to lobbyists who use subtler tools of influence, partly out of fear of anti-bribery laws which threatens jail time even for chief executives if they let workers pay bribes overseas.

But if thought from a contrary point, replacing one evil with another is not a perfect solution. Lobbying itself is heavily regulated as it is very easy for a lobbyist to stray into bribery, the most direct way to influence legislation, obviously, is to bribe enough law makers to ensure that the bill you support passes. It is of inconspicuous harm to both private and public sectors but yet better compared to grass root corruption. Leave apart the 2020 dream India vision, we are still among the top 70 countries corruption list and when reality calls, we have to answer - either lobbying or the resident evil - corruption. Public opinion always makes the difference.

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