The Washington Post

Wal-Mart’s disclosure of lobbying activities morphs into talk of bribery in India

An employee checks the stock inside a newly opened Bharti Wal-Mart store in Hyderabad, India, on Sept. 26, 2012. (Mahesh Kumar A. -- Associated Press)

NEW DELHI -- Lobbying is not only illegal in India, it is also a dirty word.

So when Wal-Mart, which is already in the news here over the government’s controversial decision to allow foreign retail giants to invest, declared to the U.S. Senate  that it spent about $25 million on lobbying since 2008, it raised more than just a few eyebrows here.

In a disclosure report, Wal-Mart declared that the sum was spent on lobbying activities that included gaining “enhanced market access for investment in India."

But in the corruption-obsessed political climate in India, the disclosure of lobbying instantly morphed into talk of bribe-giving. The disclosure also brought alive the memories of a 2010 scandal, where the transcripts of taped telephone conversations of a powerful Indian lobbyist with the high-and-mighty were published by the media. The lobbyist was heard trying to influence the appointment of key ministers in the government revealing the nexus between big business and the state. India banned corporate contributions to political campaigns in 1967, which drove the practice under the table.

Days after the government’s retail decision won a crucial parliamentary backing, things heated up in parliament again, and lawmakers shouted angry slogans and disrupted proceedings on Tuesday.

“Lobbying is nothing more than a benign form of bribery,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, the lawmaker from the national opposition party, the BJP. “We want all the recipients of this lobbying money to be identified. And until the probe is over, the government should put on hold its hurried decision to allow Wal-Mart into India.”

A leader of the ruling Congress party Jagdambika Pal tried to explain in vain that Wal-Mart had lobbied with the American senators, not with the Indian politicians.

Another party leader pleaded a language disability.

"No Samajwadi Party member can be lobbied by Wal-Mart, we don't have any leader who can speak English," Mohan Singh said, speaking about his party that rules the northern Hindi-speaking state of Uttar Pradesh.

Indian public affairs professionals came on television to explain American practice.

“What has been done is legal…and it is part of their parliamentary proceedings.” said Dilip Cherian, who heads the public affairs firm called Perfect Relations.

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.



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