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AMERICAN IDYLL

All India Radia: K sera sera...?

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

The term "lobbying" is said to come from the gathering of lawmakers and peers in the hallways (or lobbies) of the Parliament in the mother of all democracies viz. , England, before and after parliamentary debates. A more colorful explanation comes from its progeny, the United States. The story goes that President Ulysses Grant used to repair occasionally to the lobby of the Willard Hotel, located a block away from the White House, to enjoy a cigar and brandy after a day's work. Political wheelers and dealers, fixers and nixers, hung around the lobby, hoping to talk to him - and thus the term lobbying, already in existence, got wider currency. lobbying has a pejorative ring to it (advocacy sounds more respectable), Willard has not been vilified for its contribution to the political lexicon, probably because it has more engaging literary bragging rights: Among its guests, Martin Luther King finished his "I Have A Dream" speech, and Mark Twain wrote two books here. CharlesDickens and Walt Whitman stayed here, as did a host of Presidents and Prime Ministers, including Dr Manmohan Singh. Most times, visiting Indian cabinet ministers stay here, swishing through the lobby where Lincoln walked and Grant talked.

Today, Washington DC is the world capital of lobbying. Most lobbying enterprises are located on the city's "K Street, "now a derogatory metonym for influence peddling, much like Dalal Street in Mumbai and Wall Street in New York City are metonyms for the financial world. Lobbying, a multi-billion dollar business, has attained a near industry status because it employs some 40, 000 people directly (including nearly 20, 000 registered lobbyists) and many more indirectly. So pervasive is lobbying in the U. S that the two-mile long "K Street"has also engendered an eponymous HBO TV series.

India is a relative greenfield in the business of lobbying where even the U. S is struggling to contain its pernicious growth. We have no equivalent of K Street, although there has been an uptick in lobbying in the modern sense from the time liberalization kicked in in the early 1990s (influence-peddling has existed since times immemorial). The Radia episode is a warning that those who seek to loosen or thwart regulations also need to be regulated lest they cross the line in the sand, push the envelope, or whatever metaphor you choose to use.

While much of India is horrified at the so-called lobbying scandal, it is instructive to note that the Government of India and Indian industries have begun to use lobbyists extensively in Washington DC to lubricate the system to New Delhi's benefit. For decades, the Congress government employed a sole individual, a Nehru-Gandhi loyalist named Janaki Ganju, as its lobbyist in the U. S. In the early 1990s, New Delhi found it prudent to employ an established American lobbying firm with connections on the Hill to win friends and influence people.

Lobbying firms came in handy to mollify lawmakers in the aftermath of the nuclear tests in 1998 and later to lubricate the passage of the nuclear deal, even as there is a raging debate in the U. S about the revolving door syndrome to describe the traffic between the corridors of power and the salons of influence peddling. Ironically, bureaucrats and staffers who were inimical towards New Delhi when they were in the administration and Congress later lobbied for India when they joined K Street.

More recently, Indian industries have begun employing lobbyists as trade between the two countries has burgeoned. The Tata group itself employs several lobbying firms in the U. S - among them Pace LLP for automotive lobbying. David Kelly, among those who handle the Jaguar-Land Rover account, was formerly the chief of staff for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator. His colleague Lane Scott was on the White House Presidential Advance Staff and later Director of Legislative Affairs for the National Auto Dealers Association. You can't have anyone better to advice Tatas on the policies and regulations governing the US market.

Despite many Presidents, including Obama, railing against influence peddling, the White House itself isn't immune to lobbying. There is an apocryphal story about President Roosevelt telling a business delegation, "Okay, you've convinced me. Now go out there and bring pressure on me. "So for all the efforts to reform and regulate the industry, the feeling in Washington DC is K sera sera: when it comes to lobbying, whatever will be, will be. Here's yet another area where India need not follow the American way.

Reader's opinion (2)

Navin Chand GuptaDec 10th, 2012 at 23:05 PM

India is a greenfield governance so far even with 1120 million people. It is a mediocre country and still to learn the governance for long. We have to develop rulers with depth,vision, knowledge and management skills with an iron hand attitude.

Ravi NagDec 2nd, 2010 at 13:27 PM

You make lobbying so very legit!
But finally it is what it is - 'Pimping'.

 
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