In February 2011, the then Union Minister for Tribal Affairs, Kantilal Bhuria, received a letter from Congress party president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. In that letter, Sonia Gandhi offered some suggestions to Bhuria in respect of the Forest Rights Act, which was then at a draft stage, based on her discussions with her “kitchen Cabinet”, the jholawala brigade formally known as the National Advisory Council.
It is hard to understand Bhuria’s state of mind at that time, but for some unfathomable reason, he didn’t exactly jump with alacrity at having received “suggestions” for changes in the draft rules to policy emerging from the extra-constitutional authority housed in 10, Janpath.
He didn’t, for instance, say “Ji, Huzoor” — and incorporate the policy suggestions. Perhaps in a moment of political naivete, he had deluded himself into believing that as the Minister, he had final say over policy matters in government. He therefore sat on Sonia Gandhi’s letter for a couple of months.
Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi, and her kitchen Cabinet, were getting quite antsy over the delay in the Minister’s responsiveness. In June, Sonia Gandhi sent another letter pointing out that the Minister had been less than agile in responding to the suggestions for policy changes. “The Ministry of Tribal Affairs was requested to inform NAC regarding the progress on the implementation of the recommendations,” the letter pointed out. “We have now been informed that the recommendations of the NAC have been processed and are awaiting your approval.”
Bhuria wrote back in response, but rather than comply with the suggestion, he had the gall to reject the suggestions forwarded by her! With that letter, the brave but foolish Bhuria virtually sealed his fate. The words ‘Off with his head’ may or may not have reverberated in 10, Janpath, but in the Cabinet reshuffle the next month, Bhuria was unceremoniously sacked. In his place was appointed V Kishore Chandra Deo, who knowing what was required of him, promptly took on board the “suggestions” from on top, which eventually made it into law.
That episode is revealed from documents that Economic Times secured under the Right to Information Act, all of which go to establish just how actively Sonia Gandhi was involved in steering legislation on important social welfare policies, and even deciding the fate of Ministers based on action taken on her “suggestions”.
The details of the documents, which Economic Times reports on, validate what was always known in a general way: that Sonia Gandhi, as the power behind the throne, was the 'super Prime Minister' — or She Who Must Be Obeyed. What they additionally reveal is the extent of her involvement in the minutiae of policy matters, and her extraordinary exertions in pushing them through Cabinet and Parliament.
They also show up the hollowness of the claim that in a Parliamentary system of government , it is the Prime Minister who is the final arbiter on policy matters. According to the details that the newspaper secured from the NAC Secretariat, even the Prime Minister received at least 25 letters in 2010 from Sonia Gandhi (in addition to the 17 that various Cabinet Ministers received from her) nudging him to steer policy in a direction that the NAC deemed fit. Even if the letters to him offer merely “suggestions” and “recommendations” – not commandments , Bhuria’s experience, and what is generally known of the power dynamics within the UPA government suggest that anyone who didn’t fall in line would have paid for not abiding by Sonia Gandhi’s extra-constitutional authority.
Strikingly, almost all of Sonia Gandhi’s interventions appear to have been made in respect of policy initiatives that are central to her social welfarist outlook, and issues that are of interest to her from the point of view of elections. Indicatively, these relate to the NREGA, the food security provision, affairs relating to the tribal communities, and issues of manual scavenging and so on.
In some cases, Sonia Gandhi’s interventions introduce some positive, common sensical provisions in proposed legislation that ought to have been considered in the normal course within the policymaking framework of the government.
For instance, ET writes, at her intervention, the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill of 2010 was amended to include domestic workers. Again, in another instance, the then Law Minister M Veeerappa Moily is nudged into coordinating with the Ministry of Women and Child Development to frame legislation to address sexual offences against children.
But equally, the documents that Economic Times offer a glimpse into are illuminating for the areas in which ‘Super Prime Minister’ Sonia Gandhi doesn’t appear to have applied her mind or made active interventions. Among these are some of the biggest issues confronting the country, including the economic slowdown, and the fiscal crisis, some of which owed directly to her social welfarist agenda (on which she was actively steering policy).
This isn’t the first time that an extra-constitutional authority has wielded such direct influence over policy matters and ministers. During Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi’s family associate Ottavio Quattrocchi wielded enormous powers over Ministers and top bureaucrats. He even secured unprecedented access to confidential information sent to the Prime Minister’s office. To the eternal consternation of even top bureaucrats, he could recount the confidential notings that they had made on files they had sent to their Ministers.
The latest instances of policy interventions by Sonia Gandhi that the ET report shows up are the most egregious manifestation of the “power without responsibility” charade that underwrites the UPA government. Even the Prime Minister may nominally be held accountable for the policy decisions he or his government takes. But the power behind the throne, the Super Prime Minister, and the resident behind the high walls of 10, Janpath is the ultimate authority who must be obeyed, but who hovers beyond all notions of accountability.