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TROUBLE AHEAD

The word, ‘lobby’, has been in use in the United States of America for close to two centuries; its definition in the Black’s Law Dictionary is thus: “To talk with or curry favor with a legislator, usually, repeatedly or frequently, in an attempt to influence the legislator’s vote”. A federal law governing the conduct of lobbyists — usually by requiring them to register and file activity reports — was introduced in the late 1940s in the US. It was called the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946. In fact, with the introduction of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, lobbyists were obliged to disclose more information pertaining to their activities in the US. Interestingly, the US also has an anti-lobbying act which explicitly prohibits the use of appropriated funds for activities that are intended or designed to influence in any manner a member of the Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government to favour or oppose any legislation, law or appropriation. It has been said that the purpose of American lobbying laws is “to tell the public who is being paid how much to lobby whom on what.” The Americans see lobbying as the process of petitioning the government to influence public policy. It is a treasured democratic right.

Interestingly, Americans also appear to be very protective about foreign poaching on their soil. The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 was born, the primary purpose of which was to limit the influence of foreign agents and propaganda on American public policy. The law came into existence out of recommendations by a special committee of Congress (known as the McCormack-Dickstein Committee) investigating “un-American activities” in the US. The act focused entirely on lobbying disclosure rather than on the regulation of lobbying conduct.

Move on

Seen against this background, any allegation against Wal-Mart “lobbying” appears to be a non-starter from the American legal point. However, in the Indian context, how will the law be interpreted or implemented — if at all it is — to regulate Wal-Mart’s ‘lobbying’? Wal-Mart appears to have been solidly backed by the government of India as well as by some members of the Opposition, the numerous charges against the multi-national corporation notwithstanding.

Government keenness for Wal-Mart apart, what does not seem to bode well for India is the fact that there does not appear to be any law which explicitly or implicitly declares ‘lobbying’ an illegal act. Lobbying in theory may be unacceptable to government departments such as defence, civil aviation and telecommunications, but what does the law of the land say? Although India does have a plethora of laws to deal with various kinds of offences, has lobbying ever been stopped or found to be a grave enough offence to be punished in an exemplary manner? That Indian companies — or, for that matter, even the Indian embassy in Washington D.C. — have, more often than not, availed themselves of the services of lobbyists in the US is well known. So one wonders how far the Indian demands for an enquiry into Wal-Mart’s ‘illegal expenditure’ — pertaining to its lobbying for entry into the Indian market — would go.

The Indian government cannot effectively deal with the informal lobbying — which goes on all the time in the corridors of power — on its own. Lobbyists in India are called everything from “dalals” to “chamchas”. All these people exist brazenly under the very noses of the rich and powerful in Delhi. It would, therefore, be well-nigh impossible for people against lobbying in India to sustain their movement. Lobbying and lobbyists are products of capitalist, free market economics. They will continue to exist. India needs to move on after having made the mistake of inviting foreign sharks to enter its hinterland.