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AMONG the many casualties of the lacklustre performance of the UPA-2 regime is what arguably was one of its more audacious initiatives – the National Advisory Council (NAC). Despite lack of clarity, and unease, about its formal status within the structures of governance, the NAC was widely credited with helping design and push through pathbreaking legislations relating to transparency and accountability of official functionaries and schemes (the Right to Information Act) and institutionalizing the first steps towards the right to work (the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). Both initiatives served to enhance the image of the UPA as an aam aadmi regime, with some even crediting its improved electoral performance in 2009 to them. Despite discontent about the high profile and interventionist stance of the NAC within sections of the officialdom, few were thus surprised that the second term of the UPA saw an enlarged NAC with a wider mandate.

The experience since then has been somewhat disappointing, with all proposed initiatives of the NAC facing not only stronger resistance within government but also a more critical scrutiny by sections of the political class and media. The proposed food security legislation faces opposition even within the Cabinet and most observers rate its chances of successful passage in Parliament as low. Another high profile initiative, the Communal Violence Bill, has provoked strong negative reactions, not just from the political class but also civil society activists and human rights lawyers. Similarly, the NAC draft legislation to regulate land acquisition remains mired in controversy, not surprising given the failure of the NAC in even securing consensus amongst its members.

A much greater blow to the credibility and standing of the NAC was dealt by the Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement by not only upstaging the NAC draft of the Lokpal Bill but by ‘discrediting’ key members of the NAC as ‘soft and accommodating’ vis-a-vis the government. Coming as this did alongside efforts to dilute key provisions of the RTI Act hugely damaged, in public perception, the ability of the NAC in ensuring greater probity in public life.

One can add to the ‘failures’ of the NAC – be it the inability to extend the coverage of the NREGS and help iron out the many deficiencies that emerged during its implimentation, or bring the wages under the scheme at par with statuatory minimum wages, craft new legislation/schemes for informal sector workers, and so on. All these indicate that despite the presence of Sonia Gandhi as its chair, the NAC no longer enjoys the cachet it once did in the UPA regime, irrespective of the ‘merit’ of its proposals or the ‘credibility’ of its members, forcing thereby a ‘rethink’ on the worth-whileness and efficacy of the initiative.

There is little doubt that ‘inputs’ from bodies like the NAC, building on the proven track record of some of its members, have helped craft a more ‘inclusive’ development agenda for the country. In a regime far too fixated and dependant on business and capital for growth, the less well-endowed sections of society tend to get a short shrift. Unfortunately, the NAC, particularly in the absence of a clear placement in the organizational structure of government, relies inordinately on the political capital of Sonia Gandhi. Without her constant and visible support, it is easily reduced to one more toothless advisory body whose recommendations can be easily ignored.

Alongside the excessive reliance on Sonia Gandhi, the NAC also seems to have erred by overly focusing on the legislative route to change and social transformation. An uncritical belief that social and structural problems are best addressed through a mix of legislating new rights and schemes is not only conceptually flawed, it tends to misread the complexion of political forces in the country. In opening up too many fronts simultaneously, without any strategy of garnering support across parties – crucial in a fragmented polity – no legislation is likely to succeed. Worse, the absence of political consensus more or less guarantees that the eventual implimentation of the scheme/programme will remain scratchy.

In part, emboldened by its success on the RTI and NREGS fronts, the NAC seems to have overreached itself, attempting, without adequate preparation, to advance too many ideas. It seems to have forgotten that both these initiatives were presaged by years of dedicated struggle. Sheparding through the NAC was essentially the icing on the cake, not the prime reason for success. The shift in focus from politics and struggle, both within and outside the legislative arena, and a greater emphasis on the technicalities of law-making, is what has contributed to the increased irrelevance of the NAC. Clearly it is time to go back to the drawing board.

Harsh Sethi