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Dangers of activists dictating policymaking

Publication: Livemint.com
Date: December 10, 2013
URL: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/jQqfSq6cX2mVn11hYHRogL/Dangers-of-activists-dictating-policymaking.html

The National Advisory Council has done a lot of damage to the country

Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has done well to set the cat among the pigeons. In a blog post written this week, he has argued that weak political leadership has led to the emergence of other sorts of power. Pawar added that such a thing would not have happened during the reign of a decisive leader: “Indira Gandhi was a strong leader. She used to take decisions and had the capacity to implement them, so during her time such jholawallahs didn’t grow”. These comments are a withering indictment of the current government led by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.
 Pawar is a sly politician. He rarely shows his entire hand. It is thus not clear who he was referring to when he criticized the rise of the jholawallahs. Was it Arvind Kejriwal or the members of the National Advisory Council (NAC) that have wielded so much power since 2004?

The example of Indira Gandhi is not an apt one. She also had a strong kitchen cabinet during the first years of the reign. Cerebral men such as P.N. Haksar, P.N. Dhar and D.P. Dhar—the famed Kashmiri trio—advised her during her battles with the Congress syndicate, the subsequent turn to the left after 1969 and her showdown with Richard Nixon in the traumatic months preceding the Bangladesh War.

Indira Gandhi was not the first to have a strong set of personal advisers. Jawaharlal Nehru had a very good private secretary in the form of Tarlok Singh, an economist. Nehru was a firm believer in the importance of his cabinet as well as the supremacy of Parliament, so his office was more of a support system than an agenda setter. Lal Bahadur Shastri was the first prime minister to build a strong secretariat around him, but it was only after the rise of Indira Gandhi that a kitchen cabinet began to actually craft national policy. Successive prime ministers have since then depended on personal advisers to help them run the country. Even Atal Bihari Vajpayee had the brilliant Brajesh Mishra at his side.

However, there are two important differences between the earlier advisers and the members of NAC. First, people like Haksar or Mishra were realists, took a sophisticated view of national interest and were subservient to the elected government of the day. Second, the earlier advisers worked with the prime minister while NAC often works at cross purposes with the Manmohan Singh government. One of the most telling examples of its irresponsible approach is when some NAC members took part in a demonstration outside the Planning Commission, which effectively meant that one arm of the establishment was taking part in a theatrical protest against another part of the policy establishment.

NAC has done a lot of damage to the country. Its interventions have been pushed through because the reluctance of a weak government could be easily brushed aside. NAC should explain whether the Rs.2 trillion spent on the rural jobs scheme since 2006 would have better used if the money was expended on rural infrastructure such as roads or irrigation. NAC should explain why two out of three Indians should be given subsidized food when the official data shows that less than one in four Indians is below the national poverty line. NAC should explain why it did not anticipate corruption in the rural jobs scheme that its members now so vociferously complain about.

Pawar hit the nail on the head when he linked the rise of the jholawallahs to weak political leadership. The great sociologist Max Weber identified three types of legitimate rule: traditional authority, legal authority and charismatic authority. Traditional authority anyway weakens as a country becomes modern. Legal authority, based on the rule of law, takes time to seep into the public culture of a country such as ours. It is in such circumstances that countries like India depend on charismatic authority, which has its own dangers. B.R. Ambedkar had made a similar point in his last speech in the constituent assembly way back in 1949.

Charismatic authority is founded on the appeal of an individual. This is what Narendra Modi is banking on. His followers present him as a decisive man who will lead the country after 10 years of weak leadership in New Delhi. The reason why this has struck a chord across the country is that legal authority has been weakened in the past decade in India even while charismatic leadership has been lacking. The elected government, the office of the Prime Minister, independent institutions—all have been weakened.

A mature democracy should be based on rules rather than the charisma of an individual. But it is also true that voters get attracted to charismatic politicians precisely at the time when the constitutional order is undermined. The groundswell of support for Modi as well as the anger against the Congress should be seen against this backdrop.
Did extraconstitutional activists subvert policymaking?

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