Art of lobbying

Print edition : January 14, 2011

Corporate lobbyist NiiraRadia after being questioned by the Enforcement Directorate on her firm's alleged role in the 2G spectrum allocation case, in New Delhi. - AMAN SHARMA /PTI

That many who are lobbyists use sleazy means does not make the activity objectionable in a democracy.

THE fag end of 2010 has seen a sudden interest in lobbying as a professional activity, with the leaking of selected tapes of the conversations of lobbyist Niira Radia with a variety of people. Oddly enough, lobbyists usually call themselves something else communications specialists, public relations consultants and similar rather vague and neutral' titles.

This could mean that lobbying as an activity is not something that is very desirable, which is really not warranted, had it not been for the fact that many who follow this profession have made it undesirable by reducing it to sleazy and dark levels, equating it with fixing' and inevitably with providing money in return for favours sought.

The word seems to have come from the efforts made by groups of Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom and senators and Congressmen in the United States to get their point of view across to Ministers and policymakers informally in the lobbies adjoining different legislative chambers. Over time this was taken over by full-time professionals, some of them former members of the legislatures, or former holders of high public office, and others who have risen simply by getting to know a number of important people and giving them information and requests from interested groups.

In principle, this cannot be seen to be an undesirable activity. Democracy means, essentially, governance through discussion and debate, and while such debates and discussions were usually held in the chambers meant for such activities, starting with the Forum in Rome, or in an earlier era in the Acropolis in Athens, a good deal of such discussions were held among groups of people. When a particular group felt that their point of view needed to be brought to the notice of policymakers, they went and spoke to them, or if that was not possible, they spoke to those who were able to convey their views to the right people.

One can argue that, in a democracy, all debate and discussion relating to policy formulation and enactment of laws must be in the forums set up by law in the halls of legislature. This would then exclude the often significant discussions that take place in, say, the media, be it in journals, newspapers, television or radio channels. This would exclude debates organised in seminars and conferences where opinions are often shaped to be brought to the houses of legislature later. It would exclude many places where ideas are presented and exchanged, however small they may be. It is, surely, in the crucible of such discussions that ideas affecting society are shaped and presented through wider means for general acceptance or rejection. To a simple mind, this is what democracy means.

Then just where does one draw a line and say that this kind of discussion or persuasion is permitted and that kind is not? And who is to lay that line down? Is such a distinction desirable? If it is, where would one place the advocacy of voluntary organisations for a particular cause? It may be for the education of children or for a fair deal to a group of entrepreneurs in a particular realm of activity or to ensure justice to a group of farmers who need finances to produce agricultural products for the market. Would it be possible and democratic to bind these down to a set of rigid rules and regulations? Would that not amount to a curb in the freedom of expression, a cornerstone of the edifice of democracy?

It must be conceded that an individual has the right to be able to persuade others to a particular point of view. In other words, what is referred to, often with unthinking distaste, as lobbying is a part of a larger process that in itself cannot be faulted for being anything other than a part of the immensely complex process called democracy.

The trouble starts when the methods adopted to bring about that persuasion move beyond arguing a case with convincing logic and reasoning to an instance that is less clear, in which other, sleazy factors come in be it money, or lavish hospitality of different kinds, and so on. That many who are lobbyists use such means does not therefore make the basic activity objectionable. Many other activities are distorted and used in an objectionable manner paid news is an example of something that has been causing concern to people at large as well as professional mediapersons.

Radia's role

One must therefore see what Niira Radia was doing in its context. She may well have been indulging in dark and undesirable methods to persuade those whom her clients wanted persuaded to a particular way of thinking or to a particular decision. That is not the point. One has no idea of what she did. But, in itself, the act of lobbying does not need to be excoriated in the manner it has been done recently by certain shrill elements in the media and in public life.

Certainly, if she has been using illegal methods of persuasion, she needs to be prosecuted for it, and if found guilty, punished appropriately. Nobody can have any doubt about that. So it is for those agencies charged with investigating and prosecuting instances of wrongdoing to do their job, not only as far as Niira Radia is concerned but wherever such illegal activities are detected.

What is really a cause for alarm is how tapes of telephone conversations that were tapped to facilitate investigation into charges of Niira Radia evading huge amounts of tax and indulging in other illegal financial dealings were handed over to the media. Surely, it ought to be easy for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to track down the person who did it as very few would have access to the tapes the technical agencies doing the actual tapping and taping, and those who then got them for use in their investigations. Someone from either of these two sets of agencies gave the tapes to the media, and if the CBI cannot find out who it is, then it is being either exceedingly foolish or is deliberately not investigating the source of the leak.

This is where the Prime Minister must come good on his promise that such leaks would never again take place. To ensure that, he must make sure that those who actually leaked the tapes are identified and given exemplary punishment. One would like to think that he will do so, but so far nothing much has been happening on this front. As indeed on other fronts that involve corruption, such as the corrupt deals that surround the organisation of the Commonwealth Games in October.

That is, tragically for the country, where the problem lies. There does not seem to be the political will to investigate cases of corruption; somewhere the investigative agencies seem to be told to go easy, to slow down, and they, in turn, then lose interest and the energy needed to pursue cases of dishonesty. Morality and moral sensitivity sit lightly on our shoulders, especially of those in power. Perhaps because that is what power does it acts like heroin, giving those who have it a high', which in the case of power is the belief that morality, the upholding of what is right, is for them to decide.

Great men would recognise the sovereignty of what is right; sadly, societies are not usually ruled by great men, but small ones whom circumstances have brought into positions of power. That is a tragic characteristic of our democracy, something we will have to learn to live with.

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