NEW Delhi has long been infested with lobbyists. They swarm all over. Their presence and clout have increased with the size and affluence of India’s economy and its growing search for armaments. In this, it is not alone. There is scarcely a capital in any country of consequence that is free from the presence of the parasitic lobbyist. Few realise that the lobbyist poses a threat not only to the probity of public life but also to democracy itself.
Corrupt lobbyists cannot survive without corrupt ministers, civil servants, MPs and journalists. Several public relations firms have emerged, headed by men whom TV anchors take pride in hosting. Since they are professional peddlers of influence, it is hard to understand what disinterested opinion they can conceivably offer to the public. The identity of their clients is not secret; nor the studious care they take, in expressing their opinions aloud, to steer away from the concerns of those who generously fill their pockets.
The US provides ample warning of the dangerous impact of lobbyists, not only in the domestic sphere but also, alarmingly, in the sensitive realm of foreign affairs. Some of the tallest public figures sell their services to foreign governments and readily enlist themselves as their paid lobbyists; retained, in turn, by the professional lobbyist.
Moneyed interests are subverting democracies.
The late John Newhouse’s exposure of the influence that lobbies wield on US foreign policy should serve as a warning. In an essay titled Diplomacy, Inc., he wrote, “The area around K Street in Washington, DC abounds with lobbyists, many of whom represent foreign governments or entities. Although some major foreign governments continue to work mainly through their embassies in Washington, nearly one hundred countries rely on lobbyists to protect and promote their interests. The subculture of public relations and law firms that do this kind of work reflects a steady decline and privatisation of diplomacy — with an increasing impact on how the United States conducts its own foreign policy. The strongest lobbies promoting foreign interests are driven by cohesive ethnic population groups in the United States, such as Armenia, China, Greece, India, Israel, Taiwan, Ukraine, and, historically, Ireland.”
American ambassadors do not hesitate to enter into questionable deals shortly after their retirement. Frank Wisner gave his services to Enron not long after he left the US embassy in New Delhi. His successor, Robert D. Blackwill, proved to be as resourceful in providing his skills to those able to pay well as he was loud in his utterances while in New Delhi; even more royalist than the king to everyone’s embarrassment.
Led by Blackwill, the lobbying firm BGR Group became involved in the internal affairs of Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003. It was paid $380,000 to represent Iraq’s Kurdish regional government and $300,000 for giving ‘strategic counsel’ to former Iraq prime minister Ayad Allawi. BGR Group’s other recent clients have included the governments of Qatar, Serbia, and Taiwan; a testimony alike to the catholicity of his taste as to his financial successors.
The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee is one of the most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill. The government of Israel does not need to bestir itself. Why bark when you have a dog?
The Indian lobby has made considerable advances. India and Pakistan fight their cold war in Washington, each with its chosen lobbying firm coupled with loyal senators and members of congress. Their partisan comments embarrass even the most fervent nationalist in the country cause they espouse.
The manner in which lobbyists promote their clients’ causes ought to concern us. They provide ‘campaign donations’ ie bribes. Those paying expect to be rewarded in the legislature with votes on legislation that affects their clients’ interests. John Newhouse called it “a uniquely American habit of sustaining the democratic process with money; they see a broad and deepening pattern of corrupt and corruptible members of Congress”.
In the 1990s, Britain was rocked by the scandalous cash-for-questions affair when MPs were caught in sting operations accepting cash for tabling questions in the House of Commons. Some years earlier, one MP-placed advertisement in the Commons’ magazine read, “Hardworking backbench Tory MP of 10 years standing seeks consultancy in order to widen his range of activities.”
A new phenomenon is the rise of the ‘hybrid law firm’, where some of the partners work in courts while the others act as lobbyists. The tribe exists in India as the ‘corporate lawyer’.
Legislation has proved futile. The US’s Lobbying Disclosure Act, 1995, full of loopholes, eg disclosure is required only when foreign clients represent over 20 per cent of the contracts of a lobbying firm. Banning lobbyists might violate the fundamental right to freedom of speech. But a cure must be found.
The writer is an author and a writer based in Mumbai.
Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2017