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Dodgy & secretive lobbying

Washington?s 37,000 lobbyists outnumber legislators by 30 times

india Updated: Jan 23, 2006 00:32 IST

Legislative corruption weakens democracy by undermining accountability of its institutions. A recent opinion poll conducted by Transparency International shows that parliaments are 'perceived' to be the second most corrupt institutions after political parties. And perhaps the most well organised form of legislative corruption is political lobbying.

Lobbying can be dangerous as it corrupts the process of policy making and also because it remains the most secretive of all business practices.

Businesses, civil society, labour organisations, public bodies, and even NGOs exercise their lobbying rights, either by garnering support for their vested interests or for the broader social, environmental or economic agenda they relate to. It is estimated that globally at least 1.5 lakh professionals are engaged in this business. Some 18,000 of them are registered in the EU and their activities produce close to 60 to 90 million euros in annual revenues. Washington alone has an army of some 37,000 registered lobbyists, outnumbering its legislators by thirty-to-one.

Lobbying is clearly a growing activity at almost all levels of governance. But beyond volume, the ethics, motivation and methods employed by lobbyists are equally controversial.

An average lobbyist is a clout-heavy retired politician or bureaucrat who chooses to promote a particular cause in his personal capacity. Professional lobbies include for- profit organisations, which operate from the shadows, collect support through grassroot campaigns, engage in multi- sector partnerships and create the requisite atmosphere for discussing policies favourable to their clients. A good example could be the various Caucuses operating out of the US Congress. This explains why 42 states in the US have regulated this process through registration.

Similarly, other countries such as Germany and Canada have implemented registration as a way of regulating their lobbies. While, the Danish parliament practices a de facto recognition of interest groups, which are received and heard by parliamentary committees, Australia requires only its paid lobbyists to register; and Scotland has made it mandatory for its commercial lobbyists to register.

In Britain, when the Committee on Standards in Public Life found it impossible to arrive at a satisfactory definition of ‘lobbyists’, it recommended a greater degree of disclosure by Members of all outside sources of remuneration. Also, two separate Associations of Parliamentary Lobbyists have launched voluntary codes of conduct and voluntary registers for British lobbyists.

India has no specific rules or provisions governing the activity of lobbyists, thereby creating a breeding ground for political corruption. Lobbying here is not only limited to lowly middlemen and touts but is also indulged in by retired bureaucrats and former ministers. The favours are distributed not just by way of hefty cash but also by unduly favouring family members and cronies of those in power.

Lobbying by social advocacy groups and some legitimate business associations might be a genuine activity but keeping it unregulated undermines democracy and helps only touts and corrupt politicians. This is why the recent spate of sting operations should be used as a justification to control this opaque process of influence peddling.

First Published: Dec 26, 2005 01:54 IST