The National Advisory Council (NAC), that recently ceased to exist, was a body meant to “oversee” the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP). Ordinarily, such tasks lie with ministers under whose ambit the bit and parts of the programme fall. Its uniqueness lay in usurping a broad swathe of policymaking functions.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
It lasted for a little less than four years. As such, its extinction should go unlamented. That, after all, is the fate reserved for all instruments of extra-constitutional authority. Call them by any name, their purpose is clearly political, but one that requires a respectable gloss.
Once headed by Congress party chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who held no office in government, it was an experiment that required the collaboration of academicians and experts with politicians to implement an ambitious, expensive and populist agenda.
The UPA’s NCMP falls in a similar category: it’s ambitious and amorphous in equal measure. A government based on rules finds it difficult to implement such an agenda. As a result, it required a set of people outside government who, for all appearance, were apolitical, but could give shape and content to a highly political agenda. In the process, the policymaking functions of Parliament and the cabinet were bypassed.
What NAC did illustrates this very well. Its “communications to government” were more often in the nature of policy commandments. It ranged forth on all manner of issues: from judicial reform to rural employment guarantee to disinvestment to an education cess, among other matters. In many cases, such as the expensive National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), it even had its way. Its concept papers are a study in what populism really is all about.
It’s understandable why NAC did what it did: Even implementing populist measures requires a minimum of political and administrative coherence. Fractious coalitions are unable to agree on such an agenda, even if populism is the political requirement for their survival.
The NAC experience shows the weakness with endeavours of its kind: They are totally dependent on powerful people for their existence. Once Sonia Gandhi quit NAC in March 2006, it began to haemorrhage slowly, but surely. By that time, it had served its political purpose by outlining a populist agenda.
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