NAC: think tank, super cabinet or unconstitutional?

The council provides an alternative system of governance through which subject experts can contribute to policy making

mattidiculla

Mathew Idiculla | June 2, 2010



The National Advisory Council has been reconstituted after a gap of four years. Once again Congress president Sonia Gandhi is its chairperson. The NAC was originally set up by a government order in June 2004 to monitor the implementation of the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme (CMP).

The functions of the NAC include the formation of policy of the government and assistance in the legislative business of the state. The NAC will have access to all cabinet papers and files. It can make recommendations and submissions to the various ministries, but being just an advisory body none of them is bound to accept them. The members to this body, which may be up to 20, are appointed by the prime minister in consultation with the NAC chairperson. The members of the new NAC include agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan, ecologist Madhav Gadgil and former bureaucrat Harsh Mander while most members of its previous installment including social activist Aruna Roy and development economist Jean Dreze have been retained.

The formation of such a body, however, raises a few questions. Can the NAC play a positive role in the policy-making exercise of the government? Is there a need for such an advisory body? The most challenging question it has to face is whether the formation of such a body goes against the framework of the executive and the legislature laid down in the constitution. The opposition parties and critics have already accused the NAC of being an unconstitutional body. However, these questions have to be addressed more sagaciously.

For addressing the first question, look at the contribution of the NAC in the UPA’s first term. Some of the most celebrated pieces of ‘aam aadmi’ legislation of the UPA-I have come about because of the efforts of the NAC. It was instrumental in the enactment of the RTI Act and NREGA. The reconstituted NAC is expected to propose changes that widen the scope of the Food Security Bill and the NREGA.

Though the government has ministries which cover most of the topics that the NAC deals with, it mostly works in a strict bureaucratic framework. Except when commissions are set up for specific topics, the government is deprived of inputs from experts. The existence of such a body will crystallise and legitimise some of the demands civil society has been raising for years. So it can be argued that there is a need for the NAC to fill the void in the policy-making process.

However, the worry is whether the NAC will emerge as an alternative cabinet. The NAC does not have any executive powers and can only give refutable advice to the government. But given Sonia Gandhi’s political standing, the ministries may feel bound to follow the NAC’s advice. So the allegation is that NAC will emerge as a parallel or a “super cabinet.” This will result in the unelected NAC, which is de jure an advisory body, de facto performing certain executive functions. This will definitely violate at least the spirit of the constitution.

The constitution makes the executive answerable to the legislature, but the NAC is not answerable to the executive or any authority. The constitution does not have any provision for the establishment of  an NAC or a similar body. However, there is no provision which prevents the government from constituting any advisory body. The allegation is that unlike the various advisory commissions which the government forms for particular tasks, the NAC exercises its advisory powers continuously over the government.

But the Planning Commission, which too exercises its role continuously over many subject matters, is also not a constitutional authority. Its constitutionality is seldom questioned as it is a truism that it essentially performs an important role in planning for the government. While the reforms brought about by the Planning Commission lately are described as pro-business and neoliberal, those of the NAC are seen as pro-poor and pro-aam aadmi. So the NAC might bring about a much-needed balance in the current policy framework of the government.
 
There is little opposition to the idea of institutionalising expert advice from civil society. In fact, many feel that there is a need to bring experts from the non-political spectrum into governance to increase its efficiency. However, under our governance system, the top officials of the executive come through the Indian Administrative Services while all the ministers have to be members of parliament. The larger question is whether there is a need for the Indian polity to evolve into a system which strengthens the separation of powers (between the executive and legislature) and gives more meaning to executive accountability.

Strengthening the Planning Commission and NAC, both not being accountable to parliament, may not achieve this. There have been other suggestions, from official and unofficial bodies, for radical changes in the structure of our government. Before all of this, wider debates on the nature of Indian polity and a national consensus on changes in our political system, if any, are necessary.

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