Monday, December 06, 2010

The Indian in the Lobby

There is a scene in The West Wing where the Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff, goes to a Washington Post reporter to ask for information. This is part of the scene:

*

DANNY
What kind of information?
JOSH
You know what kind of information.
DANNY
Hey.
JOSH
You know no one knows where I got it.
DANNY
You know in the highroad, I’m not supposed to hand out any information I get.
JOSH
You’re right.
DANNY
You know I’m right. It’s not my job to help you out. As a matter of fact, I get fired from my job for helping you out.
JOSH
I know that.

*

In an ideal world, the reporter does not help move the story. In the same scene, Danny says, "Josh, the information I get I have to print." I bring this up because, well, duh.

But my real interest lies not in discussing Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi -- let their editors decide what the punishment should be and their viewers/readers decide if they want to continue following them -- but the role that Niira Radia plays. Simply put, I believe that companies, NGOs etc have agendas they want to push, and have people they would like to see in power, and try and achieve these aims through lobbying.

I recently linked an article by Arindam Chaudhuri in which he attempted to defend the journalists by writing about the acceptability of lobbying elsewhere. While everyone was aghast that I would even link an article by this guy, my reason was because I was curious. I've grown up interested in politics and spent a summer as an intern in Washington DC where lobbying was a very acceptable profession. In fact, in my dealings with the development sector, I found myself becoming more and more interested in India's position on the use of ICTs and wanted to write articles with my opinion. Isn't that agenda pushing on some level? (Or it would be once I finally do it...) Aren't we all lobbying in some ways? Of course, it sits better when it comes from passion (like say, the environment or child rights) than a corporate entity and its paid professionals (big pharma)!

There is a reason I think lobbying should be made legal in India -- not that it is illegal right now. I get there is this danger that the firm with the most money will have the most influence, true, but that has been the case till now as well. Lobbying is not necessarily a bad thing. If you stand for something, be it big business or human rights, you want legislators to enact laws that further your cause. You might be right, you might be wrong, but you certainly have a conviction. You, as part of an advocacy group, need to convince the legislator of your opinion, and often even the public. Technically, everyone's understanding of the issues become better. Politicians are meant to vote one way or the other after being persuaded on the merits of the case. In fact, the link between the group and the politician can become a straight line and we can finally have some clarity as to what half a dozen of our politicians actually stand for. Their positions made clearer by the company they keep. I would love for our politicians to have to explain their votes to the public, and also declare their positions on a variety of things. Hardly any Indian politicians have detailed websites with a clear outlining of their positions. The first time the public hears about an issue is in the event of a scam.

The other day I was talking to some friends over dinner and one of them said that in India our MPs don't have the kind of staff that US senators and congressmen do. In fact, there are bodies. I met the founder of one, PRS Legislative Research, at my final round for a scholarship interview. Incidentally, he got it and I didn't, so maybe there is a brighter future there. Of course this organization offers research help to MPs but my point is that our elected members are mostly pretty unaware of most issues (as are the rest of us, to be honest) and by having organized sectors present sides of debates might not be the worst thing.

I suppose the point I am trying to make, which lies at the heart of the matter, is that legislation is very important to interest groups and lobbyists, and something we, as the public, don't pay much attention to. My hope is that getting more groups involved with public policy will pave new ways for the public to be informed of what it actually is. What is *in* this Bill?

To Radia and what she was trying to do. Yes, she was trying very actively to get her guy elected so that she could help deliver, in the long run, some very tangible results for her clients. That's not the lobbying I am talking about, because this is interference in the very formation of the cabinet, and if our PM took cues from corporates on that, it would be a very sorry day for us all. That is playing king-maker.

I guess the question isn't 'does lobbying subvert democracy or strengthen it?', but really, can there be democracy without lobbying? Aren't the millions of online petitions we sign part of lobbying? Dinner parties with well chosen guest of honors lobbying? And it seems, the tilt of a media story lobbying? I mean, an argument can be made that lobbying would be lobbying by any other name so lets call it what it is and figure out how we can make it work for us.