gfiles magazine

June 13, 2011

Advisory emasculation

Advisory emasculation 
The centre of power that earlier lay in the hands of the Prime Minister has been lost in the labyrinth of several compulsions

IN the past five decades, the US administration has been confronted with the need to take momentous decisions on two occasions. The first was when President John Kennedy had to issue an ultimatum to the Soviet Union on the Cuban crisis. The second was more recent, when President Barack Obama faced the need to issue orders for a special team to carry out an operation to kill Osama bin Laden. Both these historic moments were fraught with the danger of an escalated conflict.
If India is ever confronted with a similar situation, our Prime Minister would be in an extremely difficult position in issuing direct orders as he would have to pass through a maze of advisory panels that have come into existence in the past seven years. The centre of power, earlier in the hands of the Prime Minister, has got caught up in a labyrinth of compulsions. In fact, coalition politics has deprived the Prime Minister of even the prerogative to select his colleagues in the Council of Ministers. They are now chosen by the coalition partners and even their portfolios are decided beforehand through negotiations with Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
As a result, Manmohan Singh could not ask Telecom Minister Adhimuthu Raja to submit his papers when found guilty of not only defying the Prime Minister but also violating the norms of collective responsibility. The Prime Minister had to wait for months to get DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s approval for the sacking as well as the green signal from Sonia Gandhi.

Jawaharlal Nehru had told Kripalani that the Prime Minister would be superior to the party chief as the former was accountable to the people through Parliament.

The Prime Minister could not convince the media that the compulsions of coalition politics caused the delay in action nor could he tell them that the centre of power does not lie with him. In fact, Manmohan Singh has never possessed the centre of power since the day he accepted the office of Prime Minister. He was not a leader elected by his party in Parliament on the basis of his own strength. He was a nominated entity to bring into being a strange equation of a power-sharing arrangement.
In 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru had told Acharya JB Kripalani that the office of the Prime Minister would be superior to the party chief as the former was accountable to the people through Parliament. In reversal of this principle, Manmohan Singh was laden with accountability and office but not the requisite power.
He was also laden with a superior Cabinet outside his government in the form of the National Advisory Council (NAC) under the chairmanship of Sonia Gandhi. It deprived him partially of authority on even the economic policy of the government because the NAC preferred the welfare state as the objective of governance. Its two schemes, job guarantees and food security for poor families, were to drain nearly one-fourth of the national income for consumption needs through provision of immediate and temporary relief from hunger instead of empowering the poor. It was a sure recipe to drive the economy towards bankruptcy.
But the Prime Minister could not argue his case even after he received support from M Narasimham, the economic expert and former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, who called the scheme for food security impractical as the administration, lacking in efficiency, was incapable of meeting the task evolved by the NAC. The argument was not accepted.

The centre of power that earlier lay in the hands of the Prime Minister has been lost in the labyrinth of several compulsions

Past Precedents
NONE of India’s past Prime Ministers had advisory panels for political or economic issues and took crucial decisions on their own as head of government. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India selected the Soviet model for his economic development strategy while at the same time choosing the Westminster model of a liberal parliamentary system. It was a momentous decision born out of his belief that individual freedom was foremost. India adopted the system of adult franchise for its elections when not many countries had done so.
Nehru also created the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and kept a hundred nations at equidistance from two superpowers and their supporting blocs even when the two giants wielded the power of assistance in political, economic and scientific spheres for developing nations. He charted out the best position for India in the world comity through his foreign policy without the aid of any advisory panels.
Lal Bahadur Shastri fought two wars with Pakistan, giving a befitting reply to our neghbour’s misadventures. He negotiated peace with Pakistan in Tashkent without being trammelled by any advisory panel.

Indira Gandhi
nationalized banks and abolished privy purses without anyone attempting to advise her. She restored parliamentary democracy after the short-term hiatus of the Emergency, without advice and in the face of the stiff resistance from the extra-Constitutional authority that her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, had become due to the adulation of the coterie around her. She knew she faced the debacle of loss but it did not deter her from calling for elections to the Lok Sabha in March 1977.
In 1971, she asked President Richard Nixon and his advisers to pipe down, saying she would solve the problems caused by the huge influx of refugees from East Pakistan through a limited armed conflict. She did not need advisers to tell her to unilaterally declare a ceasefire on the 14th day and keep the US Seventh Fleet away from Bangladesh’s shores and desist from any operation to rescue the stranded military personnel of Pakistan after their defeat.
Rajiv Gandhi did consult a variety of individuals for the realization of his vision for the country as Prime Minister but he was not bound by any formal panel of advisers. He launched India into the modern era and expedited the process of modernization of the agrarian economy-based society through his five technology missions. But he became caught up in a maze of charges over defence deals because his strategies were evolved by a set of advisers around him who were nothing more than rootless wonders who could not get elected even to the upper House from their States.

PV Narasimha Raosimha Rao
refused to bow to external authority and step out of one of the two posts he held – Prime Minister of India and president of the Congress party. He launched India in a new direction by inviting the market forces to exploit India’s resources to speed up the economic growth rate and pull the country back from the brink of certain collapse. He ran a minority government and survived even after the blow of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.

Chandra Shekhar could pick up the telephone and call the US President to tell him that he was not going to provide refuelling facilities to US fighters headed for Iraq in December 1990.

Atal Behari Vajpayee went in for a nuclear test without taking his Cabinet colleagues into confidence. His style was not cramped. He went on a bus ride for a peace mission to Lahore and then fought a war in Kargil. He took the bold decision of inviting Gen Pervez Musharraf for peace talks to India even though he had played a pivotal role in launching the Kargil misadventure. His invitation was from a position of strength as India was already recognized as a nuclear power state.
There are also instances of these Prime Ministers remaining unaffected when their own partymen tried to undermine their position. BJP president M Venkaiah Naidu had to rush to Vajpayee’s residence and fall at his feet for making the mistake of projecting LK Advani as a leader of equal stature. HD Deve Gowda preferred to walk out of office with his head held high rather than submit to unreasonable demands from Congress president Sitaram Kesri. IK Gujral also chose to relinquish office rather than submit to demands that he sack the DMK members of his Cabinet even though he knew that the mid-term poll would not return him to power.
In all these cases, the centre of power lay with the Prime Minister and not outside his office as it is today. Tragically, no one allows Manmohan Singh to forget the fact.

THE NAC also refused to give a thought to the fact that its two schemes were in contradiction with the instrument of governance that the country had adopted two decades earlier when the market forces were warmly received to exploit our ample resources, including cheap human labour. That choice of instrument is no longer in consonance with the newly defined objective of governance that has now been forced upon the governmeThe market economy, by its nature, cannot sustain the concept of the welfare state as it depends on large-scale charity by the state. But the needs of electoral politics enjoin upon the Congress chief to go in for pleasing the poor and retaining their vote. Other parties also found nothing wrong in the contradiction that was too patent for anyone to miss. They paid lip service to the need for a human face to the economic reforms. Yet, the four governments that followed the PV Narasimha Rao regime (that accepted the prescription by the Bretton Woods Twins for bringing back the Indian economy to the rails from the brink of collapse) have vigorously pursued the economic stance bequeathed by that government. No government could convince the market forces to accept the obligation of social causes. In fact, the National Democratic Alliance even boasted of a “Shining India” as its election plank in 2004, believing it had achieved the rate of growth dreamed of in the past.

Manmohan, laden with a superior cabinet outside his government in the form of the NAC under the chairmanship of Sonia, has lost authority on the economic policy.

The high economic growth was achieved because white goods production contributed more to the Gross National Product than essential goods. It was responsible for widening the existing economic inequalities with the difference between the highest and lowest incomes becoming 55 times. The market economy had driven the Indian economy to a position where life had become very difficult for the poor and even the middle class. Under the guidance of the World Bank, every service became costly as the government began to recover even maintenance costs in addition to original investments in providing services. The new objective of the welfare state did not provide any relief for the poor. On the contrary, they suffer even more due to diversion of resources from social welfare programmes to consumption needs for the two NAC schemes. schemes.
Several decisions in recent months were of a dubious nature. Numerous scandals added to the woes of the government and the Congress. Their image took a nosedive. A remedy was sought in appointing one more advisory panel for the government. The NAC was formed without any participation by the party in either the evolution or the implementation of the schemes. Eminent people were selected from fields of social activities, outside the party. However, each had attended to a single aspect of national life. They were apparently not attuned to taking an objective view of the entirety of national needs. Their satisfaction was confined to ensuring that the poor got an ample quantum of food at cheaper prices (even objecting to the use of the term “cheaper food”, insisting on the word “affordable”).
Now, a new advisory panel has been constituted – a party affair with three party office bearers and three Ministers acting as advisers to the party chief. It has not been so named but it would be virtually functioning as an informal political affairs subcommittee outside the Cabinet. Never before has such an instrument been imposed on the Prime Minister – perhaps out of an inference that such an imposition would be an indirect expression of a lack of confidence in his ability, understanding and vision. There was no question of any imposition in the past because of the personalities of Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
But none of the non-Congress Prime Ministers was burdened with such an imposition on their functioning from outside even though most of these governments were coalition exercises. Coalition partners conveyed their displeasure on any issue through private channels.

The PM could not ask A Raja to submit his papers when he was found guilty of not only defying the Prime Minister but also violating the norms of collective responsibility.

TWO panels – the NAC on the economic front and the party panel on the political front – have been described as advisory panels. However, the party chief presides over them. That limits the Prime Minister’s scope to ignore their advice. Hence, they are super bodies outside the formal structure of the government presided over by the Prime Minister. How will this affect the system of governance? During the last election campaign, the Leader of the Opposition, LK Advani, had charged the Prime Minister with being weak as he had to depend on approval from his party chief. By appointing two panels, the Congress has merely confirmed that Advani was not far from pointing out the reality of the current system of governance.
Of course, it can also be argued that this system is more democratic as many more heads are involved in governance and in decision-making. At the same time, a sceptic might come up with the age-old proverb that too many cooks spoil the broth. But, can the head of the government be expected to function by negotiating such a maze of advisory panels? Can he take a critical decision that a historic moment thrusts upon him? Now, not only the centre of power but also the people seem to have been lost in the maze created for governance.

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