Thursday, April 15, 2010

NAC-II: Why we must oppose it, and what is the alternative

The National Advisory Council is being reconstituted. Its previous avatar saw a vigorous debate on its constitutional illegitimacy, one that is completely absent this time around. There is a sense that NAC-I did good things (RTI, NREGA), so why oppose it? PB Mehta wrote one of the more critical pieces on NAC-II, but even he focussed only on the lack of clarity over its 'mandate and priorities', rather than its fundamental illegitimacy.

I believe there are good reasons why it was a good thing NAC-I died abruptly, and why NAC-II should not be brought into existence. The critique is familiar: NAC is an undemocratic, unaccountable, constitutionally illegitimate body which must not be supported for strategic/pragmatic reasons. We are setting a dangerous precedent that will come back to haunt us -- how difficult is it to imagine a future government instituting an NAC packed with cultural-nationalists who direct the policy agenda of the country? No one will be able to object to it because no one is objecting to NAC-II. Its legitimacy appears to have been established. And it is not supposed to be democratic or accountable anyway - so who then can question its composition? On what grounds? The current balance of power may have induced some liberals and democrats to accept the NAC, but balance of power changes. We will come to regret having cheered NAC-II just as some of us came to regret having cheered judicial self-empowerment in the '80s. This is always a danger when we compromise on principles for short-term 'pragmatic' gains.

One way to understand the NAC is to see it as a unique institution made necessary by a unique set of circumstances where the leader of the party in power is not the Prime Minister. But political parties tend to have internal processes to influence governmental policy in any case: the letters exchanged between the Congress Party President and the Prime Minister over the last few years and made public recently suggest that this government is no exception. At any rate, the Cabinet, on the whole, reflects the Party leadership. The Party does not need an NAC to influence government policy. The real strength of NAC-I was in bringing in inputs of those who are engaged in non-electoral/civil society politics into governmental policy-making. Although government-appointed ad hoc commissions comprising experts and academics have always advised on policy, NAC is unique in being an official, apparently permanent, policy-proposing body with potentially limitless agenda, and whose members are hand-picked by the President of the ruling party.

While NAC-I may have been productive, this institutional arrangement remains a misguided response to an important and legitimate question: how do we make governmental policy-making consultative, where stake-holders, interest groups and experts are involved in the process. Our mid-20th century political institutions envisage political parties as the only actors in the polity, who make policy indirectly through control of the executive and the legislature. But politics and society have changed since then. NGOs, civil society, interest groups, academics, think-tanks and other experts have become important players in policy making, whose contribution is usually productive. But most of these actors tend not to seek or desire membership of legislatures.

A far better way to accommodate non-party-based democratic voices in the policy-making process is by reforming our legislative processes. Currently, draft Bills are publicly circulated only in an ad hoc fashion by the concerned Ministry. This news item suggests that even Opposition parties find it difficult to access draft Bills (See also, these opinion pieces calling for more transparency in law-making: I and II). Nothing stops the government from introducing a Bill and getting it passed by Parliament within a matter of days. Institutionalising pre-legislative processes where draft Bills are routinely made public, circulated and scrutinised before their introduction in Parliament will be a good start. Legislatures elsewhere have evolved mechanisms whereby their Committees regularly invite experts, academics and grassroots activists for giving evidence on policies being considered. Our parliamentary committees, on the other hand, still hold closed door meetings. Indeed, our system disincentivises even MPs from participating in policy-making. We burden our legislators with administrative duties, requiring them to disburse MPLAD funds. We offer them no research assistance. We do not even allow them to speak their minds and vote according to their conscience. All this needs a serious rethink.

The solution to the need for a more consultative, democratic policy-making lies in strengthening and adapting parliamentary procedures, rather than creating alternative power centres like the NAC that may come to challenge and discredit parliamentary authority. If Ms Gandhi still finds the NAC helpful, let it be a non-governmental think-tank. A democratically-elected Parliament (and state legislatures) must remain the only official fora where policy is discussed, scrutinised and finalised.
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