Campaign India Team
Dec 18, 2012

Opinion: Why did lobbying become a four-letter word?

Does only an element of compensation in cash or kind qualify as a bribe?

Opinion: Why did lobbying become a four-letter word?

On 10 December, as the Campaign South Asia (and Asia-Pacific) Agency of the Year 2012 winners were announced in Singapore, an interesting debate was underway back home, on some of the Indian news television channels. Advertising awards are hardly the staple that one finds on prime time debates on the general news channels. This one was about a highly evolved and specialised form of what one loosely termed ‘PR’ in days before terms like ‘advocacy’, ‘lobbying’, and ‘public affairs’ became commonplace.

Wal-Mart’s disclosure to the US senate (a standard requirement for firms engaged in lobbying there) of spending a part of US $ 25 million towards ‘enhanced market access for investment in India’ drew the attention of the BJP, which in turn drew the attention of the Rajya Sabha and the Indian public. The intent was to amplify that ‘multi-brand FDI had come on the shoulders of lobbying and bribery’, according to a senior spokesperson of the party.

Using the words ‘lobbying’ and ‘bribery’ interchangeably is something not many people agree with. Both may exist mutually exclusive of each other, as is obvious from how they are inherently defined.

Let’s take a few steps back, and go back to (I think) the edition of The Economic Times magazine a day prior to Wal-Mart taking centre stage in the Rajya Sabha. It ran this headline: ‘How an American lobbying company Apco Worldwide markets Narendra Modi to the world’. The story detailed the work Apco does for the Narendra Modi government’s Vibrant Gujarat mega-event – or should we say, the role played by the lobbying specialist in creating a showcase event in Vibrant Gujarat for the Modi government?

‘Lobbying’ has always existed, representing the interests of both those with commercial interests and others, including in India. It exists to put forth points of view of an interested segment of society seeking to influence regulation or policy or decisions. Industry bodies lobby, as a KRA.
Lobbies exist because everyone has a right to put forth their point of view. When it touches the lows of the 2G scam and dives into depths of greed, it acquires notoriety. But whether or not one calls it by that name – lobbying – it has existed and will continue to exist.

One small but significant part of the ‘PR’ business (much larger for those not in the business of lobbying), is media relations. This too plays a significant role in shaping public opinion though it doesn’t contribute as much to the agency’s revenues, and it plays a role in mobilising opinion for influencing policy. To look at how this works and ask some basic questions might be a good starting point. There are some parallels with what happens in the lobbying world.

In both worlds, there is an agenda. The idea is to influence the official or the journalist, as the case may be, to achieve that agenda - be it a vote in favour of a policy or a story furthering the agenda. All this is fair, until such time as the ‘bribery’ element comes in.

Now, what constitutes a bribe? Does only an element of compensation in cash or kind qualify as a bribe? Or would a box of sweets qualify as an influencer? Would wining and dining, seen once as a fundamental requirement to initiate conversation that hinged on the discretion of the entertained, be permissible for decision makers? Would spending time in the company of the influencer, arguably to understand their point of view better, over a few beers or glasses of wine, be deemed as fair?

In a job where not all of the standard operating procedures are inked in either black or white, there will be many, many shades of grey.

There are journalists and other decision makers who get influenced despite being completely straightforward in their dealings with influencers. And there are those who enjoy the perks of the job – and why not, they believe they are entitled to it – yet follow their heads and refuse to let personal relationships and professional privileges affect their decisions.

It takes a level head on top of a conscientious heart to strike the right balance. RTI and disclosures will help, but nothing can escape a mind intent on cheating the system for personal gain.

Campaign India