The Disclosure of Lobbying Activities Bill 2015 (DLA) was introduced before the Parliament to regulate the practice of lobbying in India and to increase transparency in governance. To understand the significance of this Bill, it is necessary to first examine what is meant by lobbying and the current state of its regulation across India. Lobbying refers to a broad range of activities that attempt to influence policymaking. It is often used to influence the way a legislator votes on a matter before the House. Organisations that engage in such practices exist on a spectrum. They can range from think tanks, non-governmental organisations and citizens’ groups, to corporations, wealthy individuals, and special interest/ industrial groups. This means that it is a misconception to have a homogeneous view on the value of lobbying, especially one that presumes that the term only has a negative connotation.
There is a legitimate discussion that can be had about the excessive influence of certain organisations, especially corporate lobbying. However, lobbying also has positive impacts. It allows ordinary citizens to voice their concerns and provide information that is otherwise unavailable to legislators. In this form, lobbying serves as an additional measure to secure representation at the point of policy formulation.
To ensure that the ‘right’ kind of lobbying occurs, there needs to be effective regulation, which provides clear information about the nature of lobbying done by different groups. Through this, a norm can be created about how lobbying must function in our country. In the past, this has been difficult because it is often hard to differentiate between ‘lobbying’ and ‘advocacy’. This has meant that lobbying is currently an unregulated practice. The only statutory regulation is the Prevention of Corruption Act, 2015. However, there is a gap between lobbying and the behaviour prohibited under the 2015 Act, leaving most forms of lobbying in a ‘grey area’.
The DLA Bill 2015 attempts to fill this lacuna by creating the Lobbyists Registration Authority (LRA). Any person or organisation which intends to undertake any lobbying activity would have to register itself with the LRA. In addition to mandatory registrations, each registrant would have to submit a half-yearly report. This report would outline the nature of lobbying done by the registrant, the client (if any) that the registrant represented, the funds used in this lobbying activity, the list of public servants the registrants interacted with, and the result of the lobbying activity. There are penalties, which include suspension and cancellation of registration to ensure compliance. Finally, the 2015 Bill makes the information provided by a registrant publicly available on an online platform. This would allow interested parties to be able to examine the nature of lobbying activity done by any registrant.
The significance of the DLA Bill 2015 can be divided into two broad categories: direct impact and norm creation. The first category is of those benefits that are solely based on the provisions of the bill. The biggest impact of this nature is reducing the asymmetry of information that currently exists. This is especially true with respect to ordinary citizens. The primary stakeholders in policy making are legislators, industry/ corporate actors, and the citizenry. However, all too often, ordinary citizens are left voiceless because they do not have reliable information, and thereby are unable to influence the decisions that are made.
Second, this bill creates greater transparency. It helps voters and the media know which organisations are attempting to lobby public servants, as well as which public servant or legislator has been approached by lobbyists. This is a direct consequence of making information freely available. Transparency can help hold legislators and public servants accountable, because their interactions are now recorded.
Currently, there is scope for lobbyists to misuse the ‘grey area’ between advocacy and outright corruption, to their advantage. Therefore, the final benefit under this category is that the very existence of a regulatory system prevents actors from being able to ‘fly under the radar’.
The second category refers to positive trends that can be expected as a result of the enactment of the DLA Bill 2015. The largest impact under this category would be that the overwhelmingly negative perception of ‘lobbying’ is mitigated. This is because the formalisation of the activity will make its use more widespread and well-known. The consequence of this would be two-fold. First, actors that were not aware of this instrument, like local level citizens’ groups, would now be able to use this tool to their own benefit. Second, groups like non-governmental organisations and think tanks that might have decided not to engage in ‘lobbying’ because of public perception, would now use this as a tool to help further their causes.
Enabling a trend of greater participation by a diverse set of actors would allow lobbying to play a positive role in policy making, because it would help meaningfully provide representation. Additionally, the setting up of the LRA would allow for more specific regulation to emerge in the future. This helps create certainty about what kinds of activities are acceptable Given that certainty helps actors who wish to engage in lobbying, but are afraid of accidentally breaching regulations. A paradigm built on certainty and clear information allows such actors to confidently engage in lobbying.
At this stage, what is critical is that this issue be debated in the Parliament, and eventually enacted. An unregulated and unclear lobbying sector only worsens the perception of lobbying. Such a situation only benefits those who are willing to operate in a ‘grey area’, and puts the ordinary citizen at a disadvantage. Additionally, it fails to allow lobbying to become a beneficial aspect of policy making, through which multiple points of view can emerge. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that this issue gains traction because of the long-term positive impact that lobbying can have on a nation.