A Council of Aspiration

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When Manmohan Singh assessed his first government after one year in power, he gave it a modest 6 out of 10. This time, there were no such headline-making quantitative attributions by the Prime Minister but he clearly takes UPA-II’s first anniversary seriously. The past fortnight saw three important signifiers. First, in a country where Prime Ministers rarely hold press conferences, Dr Singh presided over a gigantic one that succeeded in showing more of a mirror to the press than to the government. In a media that increasingly runs on television-time, the biggest critique of this press conference has been that the PM did not say anything to produce a major headline. It’s an unfair critique, as fatuous as it is revealing about the self-obsessive nature of the news media. An interview is only as good as the questions and the PM has always been an old-world politician: cautious, learned and not given to the excitable politics of the sound-bite. It may be a while before he sits for another such jamboree and in the end it had little significance beyond the heartburn of a few journalists who didn’t get their turn or those who would have preferred a sexy sound-bite.

The truly significant event though was the reconstitution of the National Advisory Council, which coincided with the publication of the UPA’s own report card. It is perhaps no coincidence that the two came in the same week. One is a bureaucratic list of dry statistics, the other offers the vision thing. It is important to remember that two of the four truly revolutionary moves initiated by Manmohan Singh – the Right to Information and NREGA (the Right to Education and the Women’s Reservation Bill were the others) — came within the first six months of his first government and both were driven by the first National Advisory Council before it was claimed by the Office for Profit controversy. It is always difficult to inculcate true change from within entrenched power systems. Inbuilt lobbies always favour the status quo and the reincarnation of the National Advisory Council may well give the government the fillip it needs to respond to charges of ennui.

First, it has the intellectual gravitas and a core of dedicated ground workers with an enviable record of working for those the Congress political lexicon calls the aam admi. Second, it has the political clout of Sonia Gandhi, which is what makes it different from the hundreds of other committees that surround the corridors of power.

Early signals and the Council’s composition suggest that it would be prioritizing the Food Security Bill and one against communalism. If the UPA manages this, especially the former, then in tandem with the national ID project, its results could be truly far-reaching. The critics say there is simply no way a Food Security Bill could be implemented satisfactorily – stuck as we are with problems in defining poverty. Similarly, the flagship national ID project, despite the skills of Nandan Nilekany, faces an uphill battle. No other country has such an ambitious blueprint for national IDs and it is little comfort that a similar project in the UK, even with its relatively miniscule population, turned into a disaster.

The challenge is enormous but the experience of both the NREGA and RTI shows that even with imperfect implementation, the enactment of an aspirational legislation often leads to knock-on changes. NREGA’s record is clearly mixed across states and RTI continues to face challenges from entrenched bureaucracies but once a rights-based law is in place, it creates its own momentum for change and a galvanizing fulcrum for civil society. These changes happen organically, below the radar of everyday headlines. Remember how most of the media missed NREGA’s importance until the UPA stormed back into power. The fact is that the Indian state will never be perfect and there will never be the sudden magic wand reform that traditional reformers dream of. The same holds true for those who say the Right to Education is more lip service than deliverable. We can either take an aspirational approach in legislation or be cynical and circumscribed by the limitations of conventional wisdom.

This is why the National Advisory Council is important. As a conduit of civil society’s aspirations it may well be the vehicle Dr. Singh needs to articulate his government’s broader vision and inspiration.


By Nalin Mehta in Mumbai Mirror - June 7, 2010