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The power of advocacy

Lobbying happens in India, but is covered in opacity. It is time to bring it into the open and give it a place in the system, writes Gaurav Choudhury. Lobbying in the US and Europe

delhi Updated: Apr 30, 2010 02:18 IST
Gaurav Choudhury

It's an annual ritual.

Special interest groups – like industry bodies, trade unions, farmers, NGOs and others – meet the Union finance minister in the months leading up to the annual Budget.

Their goal: list their demands and impress upon their host the need to incorporate their wish list in the Budget.

In the rest of the world, this would be called lobbying and, the visitors to North Block, lobbyists.

In Lutyen's Delhi and the rest of the country, the L-word is considered dirty – almost synonymous with fixing. Not surprisingly, the alleged role of Niira Radia and her firm Vaishnavi Corporate Communications in the allocation of 2G spectrum has raised a lot of dust.

"The tragedy is that in India anything to do with the government is seen as dishonourable. The politicians have created a situation of opaqueness where it suits them. There is no point in shooting the messenger (the lobbyist) who is a doing a job," says Suhel Seth, managing partner, Counselage, a brand and marketing consultancy.

Socially unacceptable
Legally, lobbying is not banned in India. It is just seen as something shady and, so, people are reluctant to call themselves lobbyists.

For example, industry body Ficci is not comfortable calling itself a lobby group. "We have never been a lobby group... we are influencers. Lobbying is when I go and say I want to lobby for a particular cause, that's lobbying…," Rajan Mittal had said after taking over as Ficci president recently.

But it is an open secret that lobbyists exist and operate in India – and quite openly at that.

Lobbying abroad
In the US, lobbying is a legitimate activity and many leading lawyers, politicians and retired military personnel become lobbyists after leaving office (see Lobbying in the US and Europe).

The government of India itself has hired a leading lobbying firm to drum up support in the US Senate and administration for its positions on various matters of state.

Then leading Indian companies and industry bodies – like Reliance Industries and Nasscom – have also engaged lobbyists to push their cases with the US government.

Leading lobbyists can command fees going up to millions of dollars and all of it is legitimate. So why the fuss in India?

"We are a very different society from the US. I would not recommend open lobbying as is done there. They have lobbies and they have regulated them. We did not do it as it did not fit into our culture," says former finance minister and senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha.

Efforts to contact Dilip Cherian, co-founder and consulting partner, Perfect Relations, whose firm represents several top companies, and Deepak Talwar, founder, Deepak Talwar Associates, a liaison firm, proved futile.

But other experts feel removing the veil of opacity that surrounds lobbying and its role in shaping public policy is critical for growth of a mature economy.

"The party has taken no view on this but my personal opinion is that an ostrich-in-the-sand approach neither solves a problem nor regulates it," says Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi.

"Rather than lamenting the problem (the existence of lobbying), a statutory structure for regulation of lobbyists and lobbying firms is necessary," he adds.

Rajeev Desai, CEO of lobbying and public affairs firm Comma Consulting, agrees.

"Unfortunately, there is a lot of cynicism in India and that has created a perception that lobbying not a legitimate activity," he says, adding that lobbying and advocacy should not be seen as a dirty activity.

"It would be good to have a publicly accessible list of lobby firms in India. They can be monitored and anybody who wants to use such services can know whom to approach," says Anand Prasad, partner of Trilegal, a Delhi-based law firm.

So what is the harm in legitimising open lobbying and advocacy for causes?

The jury is still out on this.