Opposition needs another CMP

The National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) of the UPA led to the passage of at least 10 laws that empowered people and which have survived the onslaught of a ‘strong’ government

Representative image
Representative image

Aruna Roy

Can there be a common minimum programme between progressive political parties and social movements? Areas of minimum agreement can then form the basis of contemporary politics that allows genuine democratic deliberation and determined pursuit of policy that would fulfil our Constitutional objectives.

This could in fact be a basis for more effective and united efforts in exposing the damage being done through autocratic decision making and a development model that is serving corporate India at the cost of the poor, and the politics of polarization that is undermining the Constitution.

Perhaps it is time, fifteen years later, to look back and evaluate the efficacy of the rightsbased legislations passed in India from 2001- 2009, and to understand what enabled this seminal shift in policymaking and legislation in India.

Some of those legislations have been called “landmark legislations” with good reason – they have worked well to implement constitutional guarantees and even their worst critics have had to acknowledge their efficacy. There was political will to promote a participatory policymaking process within a frame that was rigorous and enact laws that were implementable.

In contemporary India, history is distorted and erased in popular discourse, manipulated by many new tools of communication, which allow unverified information to circulate. It is important to reiterate that one of the most important legacies of the UPA years is its contribution in framing the rights-based legislations. The years from 2005 to 2014 saw the passage of at least 10 laws that empowered people “by and through law”. It was a culmination of what progressive policymaking had envisaged in the six decades since India became an independent republic. Many of these progressive legislations drew their inspiration from the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP), of greater economic, social, political equality and justice.

The content of these policy initiatives and legislations drew heavily from campaigns, social movements and civil society organizations struggling for a more equitable model of development and democracy.

The RTI marked a dramatic shift in not just the access to information, but also for citizens to access their share of power. The MGNREGA made a commitment to provide up to a hundred days of work to any rural household. The MGNREGA was not just the world’s largest employment programme – it was also designed so that people would be participants in accessing and securing their rights. The Forest Rights Act (FRA), the Right to Education (RTE), the Food Security Act, the Street Vendors Act, amendments to the Disabilities Act and the SC-ST Prevention of Atrocities Act were some of the many.

They were in fact, amongst the most significant paradigm shifts towards people-centric legislation in policy since independence, within the framework of the Indian Constitution. They even survived the onslaught of a “powerful” government that is very skeptical and antagonistic about “rights”, and wants to define them as doles. We need to put the different contributing factors together to arrive at a better understanding of what made this marked and extraordinary policy shift possible.

In electoral and political terms, the defeat in the election of the “India Shining” campaign and the formation of the United Progressive Alliance were the first set of conditions that enabled these demands, drafts and petitions of various social movements to take legislative shape.

There was a document that brought all the coalition parties together to define a commitment to the people, in the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP). The decision to set up a National Advisory Council (NAC) under the leadership of the Chairperson of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi, for implementing the NCMP played a pivotal role in promoting the passage of the rights-based laws.

The combination of the UPA, its NCMP and the significant role of the NAC in attempting to carry the commitments of the NCMP forward, was also made possible by fact that the Chairperson of the NAC and of the UPA were the same person. The leadership role she played in the NAC combined a commitment to try and carry out her mandate of making the NCMP commitments a reality.

The NAC was an attempt to build a body that would consult and bring together suggestions from the political constituents of the UPA, as well as social movements, civil society organisations, academics and other experts. They provided concrete and detailed suggestions on how to take the commitments of the NCMP forward.

The setting up of an institution like NAC-- with many of its structural issues undefined to begin with, eventually took shape as a robust pre-legislative consultative body. Most legislative proposals, drew heavily on social movement drafts which had gone through years of public debate. The NAC drafts, were based on further consultations, and subject to public debate, while they were being vetted and modified by government.

Finally, when these drafts as modified by the departments, went to Parliamentary committees for examination, the NAC drafts served as a reference for public debate inside and outside Parliament. It is significant to note that in the case of the RTI and NREGA for instance the parliamentary committees suggested reincorporation of many of the formulations the NAC had suggested. The RTI eventually had over 150 amendments based on the Parliamentary Committee’s recommendations, and the final Bill looked much closer to the NAC draft than the one that was introduced by the government.

The members of the NAC were not stopped from expressing their views or ever requested to refrain from saying or doing anything in the public sphere. The minutes, procedures, and recommendations were open to public scrutiny, through a website and vocal members who regularly met the press. The Chairperson, Ms Sonia Gandhi, gave space to members to express their views inside and outside the NAC. She diligently followed her own mandate to try and have the NCMP implemented. Once proposals had been collectively debated, drafted and recommended by the NAC, she made sure that she would also attempt to pursue them as they made their way through the executive and legislature.

Her position as Chairperson of the ruling alliance gave her a unique position to overcome the many centres of resistance to these progressive legislations. And because they were equally endorsed and backed by the Chairperson, it helped the UPA, the NCMP and the NAC play a significant role in bringing to Parliament a strong set of rightsbased legislations.

The worst critics of these laws, have had to accept their positive impact on the structure of governance. Even Prime Minister Modi’s derogatory remarks in Parliament on the MGNREGA-- promising to preserve it as a monument to failure – has had to be set aside by his own government which had to turn to MGNREGA and the NFSA and proved how incorrect his judgement was.

But for the MGNREGA, rural India would have seen poverty and loss of life at a scale unimaginable, providing relief and survival to many who were suffering during the massive reverse migration at the time of Covid. The rights-based laws have also empowered, educated and enabled people to speak truth to power.

There is a strong lesson for the opposition to be drawn from that decade. While the parties might have deep and even sometimes insurmountable issues in forming alliances, an NCMP on issues is both possible and necessary. Along with progressive social movements, progressive parties could begin issue based dialogues, even providing the electoral sphere something more meaningful to base their choices on.

(Founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the writer is a social activist, a former civil servant and was a member of the National Advisory Council, Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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