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:


What kind of information?
You know what kind of information.
You know no one knows where I got it.
You know in the highroad, I’m not supposed to hand out any information I get.
You’re right.
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.
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.


egg style said...

Legit lobbying? It’s a thought. Your Radia post articulates a nuanced position very well, and nuance must not be lost in all the sound and fury. But fury, there should be. Media puppeteering, cabinet fixing and rule twirling are utterly unacceptable. A journalist’s covenant is with the reader, and that’s one of allegiance to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (so help me go aaaarrgh!!)

If corporate and other interests want to lobby or whatever, let them do so openly with voters at large, not over hushed phone lines, and let democratic forces guide policy. In a semi-literate country, this may sound fanciful, but if politicians do as you suggest (websites, positions etc) and public platforms make space for genuine debate, there is hope. Shadowy lobbyists like Radia will be weakened.

The eff-up is, and this is where nuance counts, majoritarianism has been known to masquerade as democracy, and irrationally retributive forces (such as nationalism of a particular colour) have occasioned the subversion of policy, ditching of due process, scuttling of law and imperilment of much that is dear.

So long as there are shields for hire, some would say, there is relief. But what if the shield is made of an element that’s singularly and plurally radioactive? What if the shield, painted proudly with your coat-of-arms, conceals a sword/wand under someone else’s hire? Now, that’s a hazard, and onlookers may lack the sensitivity to grasp the complexity of the dilemma. But then again, discerning onlookers may see through the projected imagery, evaluate motives, examine the facts of the fallout, and use their heads. We don’t need lobbyists, legit or illegit. We need a discerning and passionate upsurge in favour of India’s motto: Satyamev Jayate.

Anonymous said...

So Radia may be a double or triple agent, Ratan Tata may be a victim more than perpetrator of corruption, but it still means the business-politics-media nexus STINKS

Dantedownunder said...

Lobbying seems to me an integral part of a democracy. In fact it seems plain daft to condemn it. It is an entirely different matter that journalists should stay away from such scenarios. Indeed journalists have no business taking sides on such matters. On the other hand lobbying is a crucial information transmission device without which any central organization whether democratically elected or not would be ill advised.

Policy decisions made by the government affect business/industry in a crucial way. The welfare of a country depends fairly directly on the well being of the business/industrial environment. The implications of a particular policy or a political candidates bias on the future of business enterprises is something the enterprises would have far better information about. Consequently this information needs to be transferred, resulting in lobbying. Such information frequently takes the form of informed conjectures about the future and therefore must always have an element of persuasion as opposed to simple data transfer.

As you point out, the more transparent this process the better. I do not understand why people have such an inherent mistrust against certain companies. I assure you the people of India in general will have far more to lose than Ratan Tata if a policy affected his business plans adversely.

This process is no different from politicians campaigning to win the votes of the citizens. In fact the latter scenario involves more of empty rhetoric rather than the more precise analysis that inform most lobbying.

It is one thing to chant for the triumph of truth, but if one is really serious about such an ambition, one needs to allow for the truth to be told in the first place. When it comes to the implications of government policy on economic performance, it is usually those running businesses that have a better chance at knowing the truth. Shutting them up would merely result in the triumph of ignorance, a proud ignorance I suppose, but ignorance none the less.

egg style said...

Kindly allow me to submit that generalisations about the nobility and/or knowledgeability of industrialists are very hard to make with any degree of credibility, be it on economic policy or other matters of all-India interest, especially in a country that is already regarded by many well-informed folk as an oligarchy (an exaggeration to my mind, but not an entirely baseless one). The Tata Group, to anyone who knows its history (on which Frank Harris has an excellent book) and follows it closely, has stayed away from all the murky goings-on, and this is why the Radia tapes have become so sensational. On the evidence so far, no case can be made to establish Mr Ratan Tata's guilt (except perhaps on the count of failure to disengage an agency, Vaishnavi, that was violating various laws and norms).
Yet, the integrity of the Tata Group is one thing, the fear that policymaking is subject to sleazy manipulation by private interests is another. That business knows best and other citizens are a bunch of idiots is a view that is fallacious to say the least. Only the rare businessman actually has an economic grasp of the world, much less any usable idea of what would work well for the Indian economy (defined inclusively, to serve all, please note).
It is very important not to confuse an industry's interests with a market's interests (the latter includes customers, who are well served by competition, which much of industry will do anything to contain). A venal regime of the recent past has done severe damage to the principles of liberalisation by confusing the two and thus injuring the popular legitimacy of an economic idea that was originally intended to serve all the people of India, not just a particular cabal.
This, sadly, is a country of extreme deprivation and of extremist violence. If the Maoist insurgency is to start losing its popular appeal, then a truly inclusive approach to the way India works is urgently needed.

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