It has never been clearer than during the ongoing commotion about Walmart’s lobbying expenses that the Indian polity is yet to reach a certain level of maturity. After losing the debate on foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail in Parliament, the Opposition has eagerly seized upon Walmart’s disclosure to the US Senate that it has spent $25 million (approximately Rs 135 crore) since 2008 on lobbying (in the US, not in India) for aims including gaining “enhanced market access in India”. Nancy Powell, the American ambassador to India, pointed out in a television interview that the money was used by Walmart to lobby for 80 issues, of which FDI in Indian retail was just one. Still, the Bharatiya Janata Party has demanded a “time-bound judicial probe”; others have said a joint parliamentary committee should be set up to investigate. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath has responded by saying that the government “is open to an enquiry”. The United Progressive Alliance clearly doesn’t want another controversy at its doorstep.
Some have been quick to link this disclosure to another one made last month that the retailer is probing a possible violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (of the United States) in India. (The Act prohibits US-headquartered companies from bribing officials abroad.) What has happened in the process is that the basic distinction between lobbying and bribing has been ignored. While bribery is illegal and unacceptable, there is nothing wrong with lobbying per se. Indeed, that is how activists, business and other interest groups convey their viewpoints to decision makers: legislators and officers of the government. As long as business protects its interests through honest lobbying, it is fine. The problems arise when corporate interests resort to bribery — which will inevitably happen when hypocrisy and moral panic of the sort on display currently drive lobbying underground. To equate all lobbying with bribery, as some opposition lawmakers are doing, is unfair, immature and counterproductive.
Surely India’s parliamentarians are aware that governments across the world lobby for their business interests all the time. The Indian government does it, if often poorly. Indian companies lobby governments in India as well as abroad frequently. That’s the primary task of the various industry associations (thanks to India’s socialist hangover, they dislike being called lobby groups). Of course, advocacy by social groups is an old practice in India, to which it owes some of its most progressive legislation. That’s lobbying, too. To view it all as some kind of nefarious activity, therefore, is not just to miss the point, but to make the problem of political corruption worse. What’s needed is the recognition that lobbying is a perfectly legitimate activity. Instead of knee-jerk condemnation as a dirty business, it ought to be made transparent and accountable. In the US, the profession is regulated so that lobbyists do not abuse their functions. All lobbyists need to register with the authorities, disclose whether they are an individual or a firm, and reveal the issues they handle and the money they get paid. It is then that engaged observers can detect what issues are being influenced by whom, and voters and the media are better informed about the effect of money on policy making. Instead of uninformed hysteria, India needs to grow up and do something similar.