While formulating a policy interest of multiple stakeholders have to be factored in to deliver pragmatic legislation. The Disclosure to Lobbying Activities Bill (DLA) 2015 is an attempt in this direction to document the volume and magnitude of interests involved in this policy. Broadly, it caters to three aspects: safety valve, information directory and a formal local-level participation in national policy-making.
Lobbying is a client-vendor arrangement between policymakers and lobbyists. In this set-up, it becomes imperative for the vendor to customise as per the needs of the client. The rules of the game are clearly defined in a contract to strike a common understanding between both parties.
Similarly, the essence of democracy lies in accommodating diverse demands for delivering a good policy. In India, however, there is no official framework to ascertain this. The agony of exclusion from the policymaking level often takes the shape of violence, protests and provocations, which is challenging for the state machinery to handle. Therefore, this lobbying legislation can go a long way in acting as a safety valve by channelising freedom of expression under article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution through an official government route.
Secondly, the information asymmetry often leads to the proliferation of under-the-table activities. The bill envisages an online platform for public information about registrant’s nature of lobbying. However, if the barriers to register or furnish information are high for citizens and civic bodies, it runs the risk of more counter-lobbying by corporate which would defeat the purpose of the legislation. Illicit activities can malign the process at various points in the form of delayed registration, improper financial disclosure, misrepresentation of lobbyist efforts etc. The legislation must be designed with a feasible balance between lobbyist incentives and government control to drive away any such possibility by mentioning suitable penalties or punishments.
Finally, local-level expression and opinions rarely reflect on the national policymaking, except for ones that reach the ears of Panchayati Raj institutions and elected representative. Hence, ground-level knowledge and first-hand information are crucial for policy formulation. Information integrity at the local administration level is very poor. This legislation will provide an opportunity for local interest groups and civil society to contribute their ideas for citizen-centric policy. The bill offers a government-sanctioned route for the common man to associate with policy-makers. The flip side of it can be in the form of hidden partisan influence reflecting in public expression of demands which may prioritise politics over policy issue at stake. Therefore, the ethical behaviour of lobbyists ought to be delved into.
The public choice theory provides for mapping all interests equally for policy considerations. However, the stage of policy formulation at which lobbyists can play their role remains to be addressed. In India, where corruption has penetrated all levels, it is vital to address this issue to allow voters to make representations in their interest, rather than giving precedence to groups that enjoy financial advantages. This bill is a gateway for change in this direction.