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The new challenges of Government Affairs in India

“(Lobbying) is the next big scandal waiting to happen. It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.”  

David Cameron, Prime Minister of UK, in February 2010

One of the biggest challenges facing the public relations industry is handling of government affairs. While there isn’t anything wrong in advocacy, its image in India hasn’t been exactly pristine and words like ‘fixing’ have been used for it. Many feel, the image got further sullied in India after the Nira Radia controversy and the 2G spectrum scam. However, in my view, it brought to the forefront a practice that had always been whispered about. The controversy further helped a lot of agencies to position themselves with ethical credentials and helped corporates understand what more PR agencies should be doing.

The major challenge for public advocacy is to be sensitive to the grassroot situation and bridge the gap between citizens and policy change. Whether that eventually happens is a moot point. Will FDI in retail be good for the Indian farmer or will they be worse off? Was allowing a 49 per cent stake to foreign airlines in a domestic carrier a little too late for some companies? FDI in retail or aviation were two areas where lobbying/advocacy succeeded for businesses. In some cases, it may be too late while in others it may have been watered down. The government needs to not only look at interests of businesses but also the common man. Therefore, safeguards in retail have been put in.

While advocacy is done to influence policy, one needs to understand the difference between fixing and influencing. Lobbying is considered a profession in many developed countries and is the preferred means for exerting political influence. Hence, there should not be a problem with being a lobbyist. But it must follow some ethics and not cross the line.

Lobbying is not yet recognised in a statutory or non-statutory form in India. However, with increased transparency in governance, thanks to anti-corruption hawks like Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, companies have realised that a more legitimate method is needed to influence policymakers.  Also, the audience is more informed today and hence, skeptical. So, while handling government affairs one has to ensure transparency and delivery of messages that do not reek of self interest.

As an industry, we need to give credibility to the profession by practicing ethical advocacy. Lobbying for a good cause, in fact, is a good exercise. Some time back, an international non-profit organization in the education space approached us with a unique problem. Over the last year or so, we have supported them in advocating their cause and they have been given a patient hearing by the government. Things do work in government and it has been a successful campaign so far.

We cannot wish away lobbying. Public advocacy will always be a part of politics, in the same way as advertising will always be an integral part of capitalism. Without it our leaders will not be privy to a plurality of ideas. It would not be healthy if politicians just listened to those they wanted to or solely interacted within a limited circle of those they know. As a discipline, Public Affairs is set to grow in India and what is required is the right talent and adherence to a strict code of conduct, it will be fantastic to be part of policy change in India. As Cameron pointed out in 2010 the current system does not feel right. But, it is upon us to make it work. For starters, let us be good lobbyists and not fixers.

Nitin Mantri is CEO and Business Partner at Avian Media

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