Sunday, March 6, 2011

220 - The Kitchen Cabinet -by Priya Sahgal- India Today

The NAC members with the Prime Minister.

By Priya Sahgal, September 18, 2010

It is the most powerful club in the Manmohan Singh Government. And no, this is not the Cabinet comprised of elected members of Parliament, neither is it the Planning Commission presided over by the prime minister's best friend. Instead, it is the National Advisory Council (NAC), a think-tank comprising a handful of left-leaning liberals, civil rights activists, an agricultural scientist, a philanthropist and social welfare workers. Quite an unlikely bunch to walk the corridors of power in a Government led by a free market economist. What gives the NAC the power to veto any government bill or find fault with the implementation of a Cabinet decision is the simple fact that its headed by the all-powerful Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
Despite the NAC being reconstituted only three months ago, it has already rejected the draft bills of two of the UPA-II's trophy legislations, the National Food Security Bill and the Communal Violence Bill and is busy preparing its own version of these which will then be circulated for the Government to "work on". Some NAC members have criticised the implementation of two of the UPA's flagship legislations, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the Right to Information (RTI) Act, while others have taken potshots at the Naxal policy, the UID scheme and the plan to set up an Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC). Little wonder that the joke at Raisina Hill is that the prime minister has outsourced dissent to the NAC. Only Manmohan is not laughing. Instead, he takes every little note handed out by the NAC very seriously. He can't afford not to. Even if it means that his economics takes a sharp U-turn from capitalist to socialist and he is left shepherding a Government where the social sector gets more priority than economic reforms.

The Prime Minister seems to have outsourced dissent to the NAC, which is more critical of the Government's policy than even the Opposition. It is Sonia's platform to showcase her socialist vision for the country

The NAC is clearly Sonia's favourite governance accessory. When she had opted to stay out of government in 2004, she was looking for a credible platform to shape government policy. More so in UPA-I when the Left was hijacking the Government's socialist agenda. So she came up with the idea of her own advisory think-tank and filled it with left-leaning activists. "One of the reasons for winning the 2009 elections was the pro-poor measures implemented by the UPA, such as the MGNREGA," points out Cabinet Minister Ambika Soni. Both the MGNREGA and RTI were drafted by the NAC. Soni laughs at the NAC being regarded by some Cabinet ministers as a "jholawala" (a term used for Leftists) outfit. "Is the idea of food security for all a jholawala slogan?" she asks.
Soni says, "Look at the US healthcare bill that promises healthcare to all. The US is a capitalist economy, yet it has realised the importance of welfare programmes." And both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have been quick to learn the lessons from the NDA's "India Shining" fiasco-elections are won, not by GDP figures but by welfare programmes. With the NAC leading the way, the Government is too busy embracing poverty packages to celebrate growth figures. "How can you ask if the Government is doing "enough" for the poor when it is actually making things worse for them whether it is by hoarding 60 mt of food per year or by freezing the wages of MGNREGA workers, or by displacing forest dwellers on behalf of mining corporations," says Jean Dreze, development economist and social activist at the NAC, adding, "the Government has lost the plot on MGNREGA

 Sonia at a tribal rally

This is the platform from where Sonia hopes to showcase her vision for the country. "The UPA believes in inclusive growth. Our role in the NAC is to make sure that it is truly inclusive growth and that the Government enacts pro-poor legislation. We make sure that the ground realities are brought to the notice of the Government so they know whether their policies are being implemented or not," says Mirai Chatterjee, member NAC and director at the NGO SEWA (Self Employed Women's Organisation). According to Chatterjee, the next big-ticket agenda for the NAC, and hence for the UPA, would be health security for all. "The National Rural Health Mission has made good headway but there are some gaps at both the policy and implementation levels and our role is to bring these out," she says.
Another area of concern for some NAC members is the Government's handling of the Naxal problem as well as the UID scheme. Although these have not yet come up officially on the NAC agenda, this has not stopped individual members from airing their views. As Harsh Mander, another NAC member and social worker said, "We're all intelligent individuals with views". But suddenly there is a premium on these views because of the NAC tag. So, when Mander told the prime minister that the Government was losing the war on Naxals during a courtesy call, Manmohan made it a point to ask him why.

Under Sonia's guidance, the NAC is pushing forward an ambitious social sector agenda, shifting the focus of the Manmohan Government from economic reforms to development issues in a bid to woo back the party's rural votebank.

Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze, arguably Sonia's favourite civil right activists, have recently shot off a letter to Rural Development Minister C.P. Joshi, criticising the plans to link the UID card with MGNREGA. They have also spoken publicly against the entire UID scheme, calling it an invasion of privacy. Now a harassed Nandan Nilekani, who is heading the project, is scheduled to make a presentation to the NAC before his project hits an identity crisis. "We are not a decision-making body but an advisory body. There are a number of such councils constituted by the prime minister, only this gets a greater profile because it is chaired by Sonia Gandhi," reasons Mander.