The NAC, an institutional distortion introduced by UPA, comes to a welcome end.
The National Advisory Council, formed 10 years ago under the aegis of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, has wound up on a self-congratulatory note. Gandhi called it a “unique experiment” that had worked to mitigate unjust social circumstances. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the praise further, describing it as legendary, and regretting that a lack of funds stopped it from doing more. Made up primarily of high-profile activists, academics and a few former civil servants, the NAC has driven much of the UPA’s big welfare legislation, from the RTI Act to MGNREGA, food security, land acquisition, etc, and also recommended policy on many development and social justice-related matters. It was intended as a sort of guiding light to the UPA’s priorities and their execution. For all the good intentions, however, there is no getting away from the fact that it was an institutional distortion that has wreaked systemic damage.
Handpicked counsellors of the ruling party’s president should not be framing policy in a representative democracy. Civil society advocacy has an important role, but there are established avenues for them to lobby for political action, and indeed, the Congress president was free to consult them individually. But by creating this extra-constitutional office of counsel, she introduced several new bugs into democratic functioning. First, political parties are responsible for filtering and conveying demands from the grassroots, and it is an abdication of that role to hand over policy priorities to a caucus of virtuous people. Second, having itself outsourced lawmaking to this group, the UPA could hardly protest when a massive anti-political current swept over it, led by Anna Hazare and his comrades, who claimed their right to articulate popular aspirations was more legitimate than that of an elected Parliament.
The hostility to politics, and the incapacity to understand how politics can be transformational, was prefigured by the ill-conceived idea that the NAC owned the welfare and social justice agenda. Third, while the prime minister may put a good face on it now, there is little doubt that his government was systematically undermined by the presence of the NAC, the disputes on the design of key programmes like the MGNREGA and the food security law. Given the peculiar way in which authority was structured between the Congress leadership and the PM, this friction mattered greatly, and encouraged others to disregard his office too.
As Sonia Gandhi and her panel congratulate themselves, here’s a spectre they might not want to gaze upon, but one they have helped construct: another super-powered and unaccountable NAC, peopled by those they most disagree with, in the next government.