Sonia Gandhi played a seminal role at the National Advisory Council, recalls P Chidambaram

During UPA years the party did not become the Govt; nor did the party become an extra-constitutional authority like the RSS. But Sonia Gandhi at the helm of NAC demonstrated what a party can do

Sonia Gandhi played a seminal role at the National Advisory Council, recalls P Chidambaram

P Chidambaram

By a strange twist of destiny, a reluctant Smt Sonia Gandhi has turned out to be the longest-serving President of the Indian National Congress since it was founded in 1885.

The death of Shri Rajiv Gandhi was a devastating blow to her, the Congress party and the country. When she was requested to take the mantle of leadership she had declined firmly — and understandably.

The events from 1991 to 1998 are too well known and need not be recounted in detail here. In the 1991 elections to the Lok Sabha, the Congress won 244 seats and formed the government. In the two elections that followed in 1996 and 1998, the Congress won only 140 seats and 141 seats respectively. It is at that stage that the Party’s leaders were able to break through Smt Sonia Gandhi’s resistance and persuaded her to become Congress President. She had an uninterrupted tenure until December 2017. Once again, in another twist of destiny, she assumed the office of interim Congress President in 2019.

The Congress party has seen victories and defeats during the period of 23 years. The most spectacular comeback was in 2004 (145 seats) which was bettered in 2009 (206 seats). Winning and remaining in power for 10 years were not the high points of that period of the Congress’ history. It is what was achieved during the 10-year period that will remain inscribed in the pages of history.

Governmental authority rested in the hands of the Prime Minister and the ministers, as it ought to under the Constitution. The Party did not become the Government, as we find in many one-party ruled countries. More importantly, the Party did not become an extra-constitutional authority to the Congress government like the RSS has become to the present BJP government. Yet, Smt Sonia Gandhi demonstrated what a party can achieve in an admittedly party-based parliamentary democracy.

Sonia Gandhi played a seminal role at the National Advisory Council, recalls P Chidambaram

We followed the Constitution and the laws scrupulously and established the National Advisory Council (NAC) by an executive order that was authorized by the Cabinet. Smt Sonia Gandhi became its Chairperson.

The NAC was a novel experiment that brought to the table talent from the fields of economics, business, science, education, environment, non-government organizations and administration to advise the government. Without doubt, it attracted its share of criticism — much of it unwarranted and driven by political animosity — but its achievements as an Advisory body were unparalleled.

The NAC placed equity on par with growth, breathing life into the Preamble to the Constitution of India that promised ‘Justice, social, economic and political’.

It championed a Rights-based approach that enlarged the meaning of the Fundamental Rights chapter in the Constitution. What is ‘Equality’ without equal access to education or healthcare? What is the ‘Freedom to carry on any occupation’ without the right to guaranteed work in times of high unemployment and distress?

At the instance of the NAC, the UPA government passed seminal legislation such as the Right to Information Act, the Right to Education Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Rights Act and the Food Security Act.

The relevance — and permanence — of these laws can be gauged by the fact that in the 7 years of the NDA government (since 2014), the government has not dared to undo these legislations. On the contrary, in times of acute distress, the Employment Guarantee Act and the Food Security Act are the laws that have played a major role in mitigating the sufferings of the people.

The NAC’s less known — but vitally important —contribution was institutionalizing pre-legislative consultation with the stake holders. Making laws in Parliament cannot be the sole prerogative of the government or at the whim and fancy of the Prime Minister. That is not how a true democracy should work. The central pillar of a democracy is ‘people’.

The NAC recognized the role of the ‘people’ and democratized law-making. The wisdom of this approach can be demonstrated by contrasting the continued relevance of the UPA-era legislation with the fate suffered by the NDA-era Farm Bills. History will record that the Farm Bills were hatched in secrecy and repealed without remorse.

I am proud to recall the historic role played by the NAC during 2004-2014 and the leadership provided by Smt Sonia Gandhi to that body, and to wish her a happy birthday and many happy returns of the day.

(The writer is a former Union Minister and senior Congress leader. This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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