The usual game in a constitutional democracy is as follows: the cabinet, led by the Prime Minister, designs policy and others either support or block it. The National Advisory Council has flipped the game: it designs policy and expects the Prime Minister to react.

This unusual view of India’s constitutional arrangement is obvious in the letter of resignation of Aruna Roy, one of the most influential members of NAC. Roy has an odd complaint: the government is not blindly accepting the increasingly costly recommendations of her group. She now plans to take NAC’s struggle for social justice to the very people of India. It is the first democratic act of a member of the group in a long while.

Both Roy and NAC mean well. India needs jobs. And no one should have to go hungry in a country where food rots in state-owned godowns. This good intent often takes the form of blind belief in the soundness of policies such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the National Food Security Bill (NFSB).

Yet, many of these lack the rigorous analysis that ought to underpin any policymaking exercise, especially one that could take India away from rational, fiscally prudent policies.

Most members of NAC, especially those with an activist background, tend to take a moralistic and humane perspective on India’s problems, be it poverty or growth or land acquisition, to the exclusion of all other considerations. For instance, it isn’t clear if anyone has studied the impact of the job guarantee scheme on labour markets, or whether its emphasis on the use of very basic tools prevents people from ever acquiring the skills that could make them truly employable.

And there is a strong case for a closer look at the numbers of NFSB and the dynamics of the scheme.

There is also the issue of accountability. Close to 2 trillion has been spent on this scheme. Shouldn’t the effectiveness of this spending be calculated?

To be sure, NAC isn’t the cause of the policy paralysis that has afflicted New Delhi that has prevented the government from doing enough to help the economy grow—and growth could fuel some of NAC’s policies (after they have been studied as well as they should be). Indeed, the government has a very poor record in terms of creating jobs, and NAC can’t be blamed for that.

Meanwhile, NAC has tried to act as a super-cabinet, minus its representative character, and tried to ramrod legislation. And that is a big factor in its inability to understand the consequences of what it advocates. A cabinet, after all, has to take a view of both administrative realities as well as political possibilities. NAC, unelected as it is, does not need to do that. There is nothing wrong in contentious ideas being thrown open to public debate but the issue is one of NAC being an extra-constitutional body that actually believes it has the right to dictate policy. The idea of “pre-legislative consultation", for example, is a barely disguised effort to shape laws to its desires. This goes against the grain of how laws are made in a democracy: after debate in Parliament and finally by political give and take in that chamber.

So what explains Roy’s exit—and perhaps that of others before her? One reason could be frustration. NFSB, for all its formidable political backing from the Gandhi family and India’s intellectual class, is caught in the crossfire of party politics. The “pre-legislative consultation" process is unlikely to gain any traction. Another could be that the Indian Parliament, for all its human shortcomings, is sovereign and is unlikely to cede its prerogatives to an elite group, however powerful it may be. Roy’s resignation is the product of frustration at being unable to subvert India’s democratic traditions. And a third, more pragmatic explanation may have to do with the ruling Congress party, which in a simplistic black-and-white view, is believed to completely endorse NAC’s views, not being willing to shake down a government on the strength of whose performance over the past nine years it will soon go to the polls.

NAC: a political experiment gone wrong? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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