After the exit of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi as the head, the National Advisory Council (NAC) – set up to monitor the implementation of the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) – is dying a slow death.
The post of the NAC chairperson has remained vacant since Gandhi's resignation in March this year. Sources in the party say that she is not keen on taking the position again.
"She feels that the spirit of sacrifice that she showed by resigning as MP and chairperson will be questioned by the opposition if she again takes up the position as NAC chairperson," a senior leader of the Congress party told HT on Saturday.
With Gandhi no longer at the helm of affairs, there is not much left to manage for the premier think-tank set up in 2004. The Congress president remained in the chair from July 2004 to March this year.
During this period the NAC was very active, meeting as many as 22 times, though the rules stipulated just one meeting every quarter.
Gandhi resigned on March 23 after the opposition alleged that the post of NAC chairperson was an office of profit and called for her disqualification as an MP. After Gandhi's resignation, the NAC has not had even one formal meeting, NAC sources said.
While the Congress president was at the helm, the NAC gave direction and impetus to the programmes and policies of the government in consonance with the NCMP, drawing from the expertise and experience of its members and Gandhi's ability to command the government.
The proposal to change the un-notified Freedom of Information Act to the powerful Right to Information Act came from NAC. So did the idea of making the UPA's flagship employment guarantee scheme specifically rural.
The NAC made several significant interventions under Gandhi, sources say. "The NAC proposed and the government disposed but only when Sonia Gandhi headed it," says a member.
"Without the Congress President as its head, why would senior ministers listen to the NAC?" asked former Chattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi. "The position can not be held by anyone else other than her. This is the first time the Congress is heading a coalition government, if it was our party's government alone, the direction to the government would have come from the Congress Working Committee, in a coalition this function was being performed by the NAC until she (Gandhi) resigned," he adds.
Under Gandhi, the NAC sent 30 important advisories and communications to the government and after she stepped down, none.
NAC member Dr NC Saxena says, "Naturally, without the leader, things are not the same but it is for the government to decide what it wants to do. Her being at the helm of affairs provided the necessary impetus and direction to the NAC's work."
The government can nominate as many as 20 members to the NAC, but there are only nine members right now. It has not replaced the three members who resigned in the past.
The delay in the appointment and Gandhi’s refusal to take up the post she vacated is closely linked to the fact that the office of profit law is caught in a legal tangle.
While the Parliament (prevention of disqualification) Act, 2006 has been challenged in the Supreme Court, the Election Commission is looking into a petition seeking the disqualification of Rajya Sabha member and Minister of State Jairam Ramesh for being a member of the NAC.
The office of profit law, which was signed by President APJ Abdul Kalam in August, exempts an MP who holds the post of NAC chairman from attracting disqualification. But members of the panel do not figure in the exempted category.
In the event, until the apex court delivers its verdict, the Congress would not like to put Gandhi into further embarrassment by asking her to head the panel. But if the verdict upholds the law as passed by Parliament, Congress workers and UPA partners are bound to mount pressure on Gandhi to once again head the panel.
The NAC chairperson's is a union cabinet rank position, a power that does not lie with the others, sources point out.
So a headless NAC is also toothless, they add.