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Is Sonia's NAC-2 a Super Cabinet?

Last updated on: June 04, 2010 20:13 IST

Will the NAC be a platform for Congress President Sonia Gandhi to build her legacy or will it be a serious driver for policymaking in government? Sheela Bhatt analyses both sides of the debate. 
"It is wrong to say that we will become a super cabinet. We are here to get the Indian bureaucracy to see reason to carry forward social projects related to areas like health, food, agriculture speedily and make sure that people like (Planning Commission deputy chairman) Montek Singh Ahluwalia gets the correct picture and figures on social issues," a member of the National Advisory Council told

The member argued vehemently that the NAC, which is dubbed by critics as 'Sonia Gandhi's own party' or 'Maha-panchayat' of the United Progressive Alliance government, intends to deliberate on, once again, serious issues like the food security bill, the nutrition policy for children and the tribal resettlement policy that would help counter the Naxalites' grip over tribal villages.

The UPA-2 has resurrected the NAC which was the brainchild of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. In 2004, it was conceived by her to create the interface between civil society and her government.

Her critics say the NAC is a vehicle to project herself as being above the hackneyed Congress party, corrupt Indian political establishment and the prime minister. While some observers think that by using the collective brains of socialists, non-government leaders with plenty of grass-roots experiences and left-of-centre activists as members of the NAC Sonia is trying to transform her image from a political leader to a statesperson. She is trying to establish, with help of the NAC mechanism, that she has a vision for country. Her politics grows and spreads from the NAC platform.

It is also alleged that the NAC is an 'advisory council' to build Sonia's 'legacy'.

However, such criticism is expected because the NAC cuts into the Congress party's space in and around the power structures in New Delhi.

The NAC member agrees that, "The expectations are quite high this time. There is lots of attention on the NAC."

In the first NAC formed in 2004, Sonia Gandhi had to resign as chairperson due to the controversy on the Office of Profit issue. In its first avatar it was hugely credited for pushing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to Information Act and the domestic violence bill.

It is generally believed that the thrust given by the NAC to help uplift millions of poor through the NREGA scheme and the empowerment of masses through the RTI act was largely responsible for the UPA retaining power in 2009.

On May 29, Sonia Gandhi was again appointed by the Prime Minister's Office as the chairperson of the NAC which will enable her to enjoy the rank of a Cabinet minister.

The NAC is likely to consist of 21 members including two political appointees -- Gandhi and member secretary Rita Sharma.

It will have a staff strength of almost 35 people. Around 10 members from first NAC have been dropped. Only Aruna Roy, Dr Jean Dreze, N C Saxena and Dr A K Shiv Kumar are members of the first NAC who have been retained.

Saxena and new member Harsh Mander are currently helping the Supreme Court in monitoring and surveying the food situation. These two SC-appointed food commissioners will now also give advice and prepare drafts on food security under the NAC banner. It may create complications because the functions of both can vary in its stance and focus, says an expert on the social sector.

It is interesting to note that the NAC has three new faces also known for their social work after the 2002 Gujarat riots. Farah Naqvi, writer and activist, helped Bilkis Banu, a tragic victim of the riots, to reach the Supreme Court to find justice. She is working on the communal violence bill since the last five years.

Mander became an overnight celebrity when he resigned from the Indian Administrative Service to protest against the riots. He has done significant work in helping riot victims get legal justice. Anu Agha, the Pune-based industrialist, is also known for daring to embarrass Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi over the riots at a public function.

There is also a perception that most of NAC members belong to a left-of-centre ideology and they are in direct clash with Ahluwalia, one of the most influential policy czars in Dr Manmohan Singh's government.

One of the NAC members claims that all of them are not left-to-centre types. He says, "In India even in Andhra Pradesh people are earning Rs 15 per day in some districts, then how can you not talk of equity? When India spends just 1 percent GDP on healthcare, how can you not talk about it?"

The NAC member said that when the government appointed the Tendulkar Committee it included the criteria of access to education and health while counting poor people. The figures then almost doubled, to around 350 million. The argument goes that when the real figures of social sector spending are so gloomy, the NAC recommendations and the push to use more money in education and healthcare is good for all classes and not just the poor.

A senior Congress MP from a western state, who was running an NGO before plunging into politics, said, "The NAC members do not know how to balance the realties between their social aims and the country's finances."

Countering the allegation, the NAC member said, "This is just not true because most of the NAC members will not be acknowledged by the Left parties as Left economists. They are trying to bring in socialist structures that can help create equal opportunities."

However, the inescapable fact is that the NAC will be creating lots of heartburn and jealousy in the Congress party and in the bureaucracy as it happened earlier. The Bharatiya Janata Party dislikes it because it thinks that "the NAC gives Sonia Gandhi the status of a 'super PM' and like her even the NAC members are also unaccountable while enjoying the aura of Cabinet ministers."

The real issue behind the criticism of the NAC is not and should not be Sonia Gandhi or her use of the NAC platform but the absence of the Congress party's intellectual capability to influence government policy and the stubborn Indian bureaucracy.

Traditionally, in the political world, the party leaders with their ears to ground, legislators with sensitivity to people's problems and educated political pundits with crafty academic wisdom were supposed to churn the ideas, debate it threadbare and were expected to bring out policy papers to guide and create pressure on the government.

But, the intellectual tradition is lost due to political leader's limited personal agenda, lack of intellectual orientation in general and due to the rise of a culture of sycophancy. These days, rarely does a political leader speak his or her mind in public or before the party president.

The tragedy is that even the political leaders themselves, including Sonia Gandhi, rarely speak out on important subjects of caste, inflation or Indo-US relations.

Also, due to the absence of internal democracy within the party the leaders do not raise the real issues but wait for signals from the top leadership.

According to author-journalist Rasheed Kidwai, 24, Akbar Road, the Congress headquarters, has contributed little in terms of either generating new ideas or sending any concrete proposal from the party to the government. Some old-timers even wonder if the Congress in power has assumed a negative role with functionaries acting more to kill or blunt any fresh initiative rather than utilising the talent it has at its command."

Kidwai who has written Sonia-A Biography, is currently writing 24, Akbar Road, a new non-fiction work on contemporary Congress politics, with the party office serving as a base.

He says in his forthcoming book, to be published by Hachette Books India, that the Congress party, 'as a political organisation seems to be failing to provide what B P Sitaramayya described as 'life-sustaining doctrines pumped through the arteries of government'.

'Sitaramayya was Mahatma Gandhi's nominee who lost the 1939 Congress presidential polls to Subhas Chandra Bose. He subsequently spelt out the relationship between the Congress party and the government at the Jaipur AICC session in 1948 saying, "The Congress is really the philosopher, while the government is the politician. The latter has power and the former has influence."

Kidwai says, "Instead, Sonia has tried to cater to the rural and urban aspirations through blending the experience of NGOs and professionals at the NAC. But the success of the NAC has been a telling commentary on the efficacy of traditional Congress leaders."

According to a Congress MP from a West Indian state, "The corrupted culture of the Congress has been responsible for a vacuum in the area of public policy. I believe instead of the NAC, the party should have powerful working group backed by Sonia Gandhi. It should be made powerful enough to influence the government."

But, the idea of getting intellectual input from the Congress seems an oxymoron given the current functioning style of the Congress. The rot has started much before Sonia Gandhi's arrival.

The Congress has not come out with any bright idea about tackling the Maoists, the Telengana issue or even on BT cotton.
Sonia Gandhi has to take the blame also because over time, she has begun to bypass the CWC, which is in any case packed with 'loyalists', says Kidwai.

Unlike C Subramaniam in 1969 or the Young Turks during the 1970s, there is nobody to complain why CWC meetings are not being held. Nor is there anybody to remind the leadership that that even in the heady days of the Nehru-Gandhi-Bose standoff, the CWC kept meeting at regular intervals but now these meetings are conducted and controlled formally by a handful of members who are close to Sonia.

While staunchly defending the NAC, one of the NAC members asked a counter-question, "Where is the debate today in the country?"

Within the government, the situation is even worse. Another NAC member told that there are many committees and many groups within ministries, but they simply don't function and nobody is bothered about them. The ministers find it convenient that these groups of experts gather, eat their lunches and disperse without creating pressure on the ministry.

For example, in the ministry of health, there is the National Rural Health Mission. It was launched by the UPA government to provide integrated comprehensive primary healthcare services especially to the poor. To monitor and to make corrections there is the Mission Steering Group with some 20 members and some 10 health professionals.

The MSG, which has more than three cabinet ministers and five secretaries in it, doesn't meet as scheduled. Second, when they meet each minister speaks for some 25 minutes and the meeting goes on and on without focusing on a specific agenda. All meetings are conducted without originality, sense of timing and coherent presentations. It's the case with the most governmental meetings where a crowd of 20 plus participates.

There are thousands of untold stories in more than 60 ministries where monitoring bodies, advisory bodies and groups, who are supposed to think and create pressure for performance, have become dysfunctional and ministers or bureaucrats have free play because nobody debates before or after their decisions.

"Their agenda is so murky and there is no transparency in their decisions," says an NAC member who has vast experience of working on ministries' monitoring bodies. He adds, "Many secretaries do not open their mouth but in the NAC we talk freely. We want to be as transparent as possible."

The NAC is different from any government council or group attached to various ministries, obviously, because of the presence of Sonia Gandhi. Her political weight is needed to push things in the Indian bureaucracy, says a former NAC member.

The member adds, "Actually on economic issues lots of in-depth thinking goes on in the Indian government due to the efforts of the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Also, there are economic advisors who are doing professional jobs but in the health, agriculture and education sector we need people who can churn out coherent drafts to present to the government. Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal surely takes the help of professionals and he is quite proactive in making changes in the education sector."

Many members who talked off the record with claimed that the Indian bureaucracy is so stubborn and unimaginative in social sectors, agriculture and in dealing with security issues that there are many instances where even the political weight of Sonia Gandhi could not do anything.

When asked to give an instance, a former NAC member said the issue of streamlining the procedures and guidelines of foreign contributions from abroad is very important to get funds for social causes in villages. The last NAC had suggested 15 points to the home ministry to consider so that the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act could be amended accordingly. But, all 15 suggestions were rejected by the MHA. Sonia Gandhi's name didn't make the desired difference.

The most frequent criticism of the NAC is why leaders of the non-government sectors should grab space in policy making while the political leaders who are in the rough and tough of politics remain powerless to influence it. After all, the NAC is the body created by the government to advise the government officially.

An NAC member says, "I don't buy this criticism. Like political leaders, non-government people should also have space in debate over policies."

He agrees that the space of political parties gets shrunk in the area of decision-making when the non-government people occupy space in public bodies.

He points out that in West Bengal, the Communist Party of India-Marxist did not allow non-government organisations to grow in rural areas because their party workers were working among the people. This has affected the government badly because there are no free interactions of ideas and options in society. He says civil society and government's interface should always be healthy and the NAC is also one such attempt.

However, the importance of the NAC lies in its potential. It is believed that NAC-2 will be different from the earlier NAC. It is not yet known what or if any role Rahul Gandhi will play in the NAC.

"In the coming years, the Rahul factor is expected to come to the centrestage and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's lame duck period begins," says a New Delhi-based political commentator.

If that happens, the NAC will reflect the future economic and political directions of the Congress more than the Union Cabinet headed by Dr Singh.

It is interesting to note that Sonia Gandhi's personal interactions with most NAC members were minimum. Although the NAC is identified with her, the members are largely independent and not her loyalists.

When asked to comment on her leadership within the NAC, a member claimed that she conducted the meetings very well.They met her during some 18-20 meetings of the first NAC.

But beyond that, most of the NAC members whom talked to don't know her. "She listens carefully and doesn't say much," said a member who worked with her in the first NAC.

They claim that within the NAC she is warm without being informal. When asked about Sonia Gandhi's vision on current issues, a former NAC member said, "I don't know Sonia Gandhi."

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi