The National Advisory Council (NAC), meant to be an advisory body to the Union government, has two members who had resigned from the body in its previous avatar under the first Manmohan Singh government, having used many harsh words against the latter.
One is Aruna Roy, 64, the IAS officer-turned-grassroots organiser, who won a Magsaysay award for helping build an accountability movement in rural Rajasthan. The movement laid the groundwork for the national Right to Information (RTI) Act, among other things. The other is Jean Dreze, 51, the Belgian-born economist who has adopted the country and its problems and has been studying these from below, not above, for the past three decades. He’s one of the few economists to have done extensive studies on poverty and its manifestations while living in urban tenements and village huts.
Both see the state as part of the problem, not the solution. Dreze frankly says he continues to find the government and its functionaries “elitist” and “repressive”; Roy, that ordinary people and their concerns are far away from the priorities of those in power in Delhi. Both had said so while quitting the NAC in Manmohan-I; why, now, are they back at the NAC in Manmohan-II? And, giving the same reasons as they’d given in Manmohan-I to join the body, that the NAC is a redeeming feature of the system, one that gives scope to move things in a desired direction.
The Gandhi factor
A large part of the answer seems to lie in the other common feature at the time they joined Manmohan-I and now, apart from the negatives of the state. Namely, the lady who lives at Delhi’s 10, Janpath, and who gave Manmohan Singh the PM’s job then and now, Sonia Gandhi.
Sonia Gandhi had chaired the NAC when both Roy and Dreze were invited to serve on it in Manmohan-I. As long as she was there, its recommendations were hardly just that. The drafts of landmark laws such as rural job guarantees and RTI were taken up in the NAC long before it went to Parliament. Among other things, social activists found Sonia Gandhi receptive to their thinking.
But, then, a constitutional question arose over Sonia’s stewardship of the NAC and she quit it. That was, effectively, the end of NAC as a policy-laying body. When Roy left in 2006, her resignation letter mentioned violation of assurances given in the ruling coalition’s common minimum programme on rehabilitation of tribals, violation of policy and Supreme Court instructions on rehabilitation of Narmada tribals, NAC meetings not convened, drift in functioning, etc. Dreze was as caustic, accusing the government of functioning in an opaque manner, making it very difficult for people like him to function.
And now? Says Roy: “The priority areas for NAC-2 are social sector policy and implementation. This has been on the margins of policy and planning, despite the NREGA (rural jobs law) being such an important part of its agenda.” She sees the NAC as a platform from which she can monitor the RTI and NREGA and also as “a space for public participation in policy making and for democratic decision-making.”
And, adds that the spaces for such consultation are shrinking and so, “in being a part of the NAC, my mandate is to be a part of efforts to extend those spaces, and to safeguard the spaces that exist. Also, to make sure that vested interests do not destroy the spirit and subvert the RTI and NREGA.”
“Many other important legislations are pending with the government, and one hopes that the NAC may offer a platform for the movements and campaigns to dialogue with policy makers, and bring the interests of ordinary people to the decision making process, where they have had no voice.” Her co-workers, she says, urged her that her presence in the Sonia-led NAC “will carry the voices and priorities of ordinary people to platforms of decision making”.
Dreze says much the same thing. “Advising governments is not the sort of thing that I normally like to do — they tend to be part of the problem. Also, it is hard to look forward to any sort of association with a government that has become so elitist and repressive. Still, one can also see the (Sonia-led) NAC as a countervailing force of sorts. And, the NAC has shown (in Sonia-I) its ability to do some good work, notably on NREGA and RTI. It is with this in mind that I have agreed to join the NAC this year, in the same spirit as in 2004.”
In sum, the lady at the head of the table made the difference, then and now. Both deny having compromised on principles. Roy says “there are some unstated positions where we cannot compromise with our principles and processes. I cannot compromise on my right to freedom of expression on aspects of government functioning as a responsible citizen”. And, Dreze agrees he has a “strong interest” in being able to push for a strong Food Security Act. With the Prime Minister’s Office and central party headquarters both polishing their antennae to whatever the Sonia-led NAC decides needs to be done, they clearly think it’s time worth spent, for now.