Any evaluation of the political legacy of Sonia Gandhi has to acknowledge her seminal contribution to getting rights-based legislation enacted. It was one of her most significant contributions to development politics in India.
The year 2005 marks a watershed for social sector legislation. The RTI and NREGA — two pieces of legislation that have since their passage dominated the discourse on governance and entitlements for the poor — were passed after rigorous debate and discussion, inside and outside Parliament. These were followed by the enactment of many rights-based laws seeking to address basic needs of the marginalised, strengthening their agency and empowerment. Despite many shortcomings, the Forest Rights Act, Right to Education Act, National Food Security Act, the amended Land Acquisition Act, Domestic Violence Act, Street Vendors Act, Social Security Act, the amended SC/ST Atrocities Act, would never have been passed in form and substance had Sonia Gandhi not put her political weight and influence behind them as head of the UPA and of the National Advisory Council (NAC).
Sonia Gandhi should feel a sense of satisfaction for her fundamental role in establishing this path-breaking legislative paradigm. Whether supportive or critical, this was participatory democratic governance at its best. Even if many stalwarts in her party were not enthused, people in India’s marginalised majorities understand what these laws have achieved to change their lives.
It requires immense strength of purpose, conviction, and assertion, to push social sector issues and the real concerns of the marginalised into the mainstream of India’s decision-making platforms. The National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) and the creation of the NAC headed by her, gave these issues a unique space. It enabled the transformation of political commitments to citizens into working frameworks of law and policy. The NCMP played a useful role when Sonia Gandhi used this declaration of intent as justification to overcome resistance in the government and party.
Our discussions with Sonia Gandhi on these issues began when she was Leader of the Opposition. She was easy to meet and a patient listener. She evinced an interest in the concerns of the poor and supported the Right to Information (RTI) movement from its early years.
When the Prime Minister’s Office called, inviting me to join the NAC, I feared restrictions on the freedom of expression and dissent, my most jealously guarded privilege. My only condition before joining was to request full freedom to express my views, even those critical of the government or its policies. I was never constrained from expressing dissent, disagreement or discontent; either within the NAC or outside. Sonia Gandhi’s capacity to respect dissenting opinions with grace distinguishes her from others in similar positions. Many of my NAC colleagues will bear witness that as chairperson, she never interfered with sharp debates or critical public statements issued by members. This established strong democratic principles of open discussions and robust decision-making in the NAC.
That Sonia Gandhi — the chairperson of a ruling alliance — headed an advisory body rather than the government was a quirk of history. Its mandate to confine itself to social sector promises and initiatives was a significant, deliberate decision. She selected an eclectic group of members in the NAC, displaying political maturity and breaking new ground. This collaborative exercise in preparing draft legislation and policy with civil society organisations and government yielded very useful results. The contributions from social activists, rooted in contemporary realities, and robust consultations with communities, lent rigour to the formulations.
The RTI and MGNREGA campaigns got her personal attention. The first promise in the NCMP, that “The UPA government will immediately enact a National Employment Guarantee Act. This will provide a legal guarantee for at least 100 days of employment”, provoked furious debate. The opposition from centres of power to this legitimate demand for a small share of the GDP for the poor was disproportionately high. Criticism and ridicule from neoliberal economists haunted this legislation from the beginning. Even though she was tentative about fiscal arguments, some crucial recommendations about the MGNREGA were finally incorporated, largely due to her support. Sonia Gandhi’s determined efforts pulled together the pro-poor elements in her party and the government along with the strong political support of the Left from outside.
A series of state RTI laws had widened the understanding of the critical need for transparency in governance. The RTI faced bureaucratic contestation in equal measure. There were objections about the scope of the law, promoting blanket exemptions, inclusion of parts of the armed forces and covering aspects of intelligence and security agencies under transparency norms. Penalties under the RTI were disputed hotly, as were the independent appellate authorities — later the Information Commission. The RTI required a statesman rather than a politician to provide political support. Sonia Gandhi’s decisions were critical to the resolution of every attempt to prevent dilution. There were over 150 amendments on the floor of the House, indicating the degree of resistance that had to be overcome. History will credit her leadership in steering the RTI law and for promoting more open and responsible governance.
In the shadow of these furious debates, other rights-based laws were drafted and legislated. She kept her focus on the marginalised people’s access to constitutional guarantees. The legislation raised hope that movements and governments could work in collaboration for realising the constitutional mandate to address inequality and injustice.
The series of rights-based laws that followed drew upon this framework to begin a new phase in the legal lexicon of India’s constitutional democracy. It began to address inequality and the concentration of power. Sonia Gandhi’s contribution is an important part of that history and legacy.