Imagine power without responsibility. It is the wet dream of the influential. A proposition so lucrative and yet inherently disruptive that let alone academic discussions, even pop culture is ridden with examples of its moral fallibility. Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker in Hollywood flick Spider-Man that "with great power comes great responsibility." Ask Tim Cook. The boss of Apple, the world's most profitable company, recently suffered a 15 percent pay cut for failing to meet sales and profit targets.
The arrangement between power and responsibility is complex but it is a necessary equation that needs to be balanced. Lord Acton once famously said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
The NDA government's recent decision to make public 710 files related to the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council provides us with the documentary proof of public knowledge — that the Congress president ran the UPA regime by proxy, eroding the authority of prime minister's office and undermining the provisions of the Indian Constitution. And she and her coterie wielded this enormous power without even a shred of responsibility. The arrangement was so cozy that even a scriptwriter would be hard-pressed to come up with one.
While NAC members — a bunch of handpicked, unelected, Utopian leftist economist, rights activists and socialist intellectuals — under the supervision of Sonia Gandhi bypassed the Executive and the Legislature and implemented their 'doleconomics', the fallout of their decisions fell on Manmohan Singh who retreated further and further into his silence, having to shoulder all of the accountability without even a morsel of real power.
It wasn't as if Manmohan couldn't be his own person. The civil nuclear deal with the US showed that he had the steel which he rarely displayed. But a wise Singh was perhaps all too aware of the fate that befell his guru and former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao and had never thought it prudent to challenge the authority of the Gandhis.
Sanjaya Baru, his former media advisor whose book the Accidental Prime Minister throws candid light on the relationship between Singh and Sonia Gandhi once told The Times of India that the former PM was not too comfortable with the NAC "since he was not the chairperson" but accepted it as a "necessity".
The NAC agenda was almost always noble, but when is not the path to hell paved with good intentions? The idealistic, welfare politics destroyed the edifice of India's economy, pulled down the growth numbers and created ample opportunities for corruption in public offices. In the name of "inclusive growth", the exact opposite took place.
A prescient Reuterscommentary in 2010 catches the dichotomy between NAC's purpose and actual achievements. "Most central schemes still continue to elude millions of poor people. Experts say badly run programmes may add to deficit spending and hinder India from following rival China by broadening an economic boom to hoist millions from poverty to become well-fed middle class consumers."
As politics of rights and entitlements — as opposed to empowerment — gained ground, the economy suffered irreparable damage. Not even some deft sleight of hand from the then finance minister P Chidambaram could have narrowed the fiscal deficit by the time the UPA had remitted office. NAC was singularly responsible for inflicting on the Indian economy a disastrous soup of half-baked socialism (even if earnest) through its Luddite policies and all this was done without an electoral mandate. An extra-Constitutional body framed bad policies which the government was forced to implement.
Half-way through UPA 2, the government faced daily brickbats from commentators and economists for its manhandling of the economy. Marc Faber, Swiss investor and editor of the 'Gloom Boom & Doom' report called the government policies "by and large a disaster" and told Economic Times that "it's a miracle that the Indian economy has performed well, considering the quality of its government."
Commentator and Singapore-based Wall Street investor Jim Rogers was more scathing. He told ETin a 2013 interview that India's "currency is in a mess, the country has very high debt, and debt-to-GDP ratio is going up every year. I am very concerned about the fiscal deficit and the current account deficit situation. The measures taken by the government are hopeless, they are making things worse. The measures for exchange control are bad and the restrictions on gold are making things worse."
Analysing the economic crisis, economist Shankar Acharya wrote in his column for Business Standard in 2013 that "the composition of the huge expenditure hikes (mainly government pay, subsidies and entitlement programmes) made subsequent retraction politically difficult. As a result, the persisting high fiscal deficits since 2008 have fuelled the long bout of inflation, kept interest rates high, reduced public savings and fed the rising current account deficits."
The picture was one of overall economic mismanagement despite having a noted economist as the Prime Minister. The reason becomes clear when we look at the files, as accessed by New Indian Expressand published in 8 January report: "Straight from PMO files, how Sonia ruled as proxy PM".
According to the report, "the NAC summoned bureaucrats to its office, wrote to ministers, sought compliance reports though its charter defines its function as a body to provide inputs for policy formulation and provide support to the government in legislative business. The content of the files shows that the UPA government had no choice but to implement the NAC’s recommendations."
Files show that sometimes it bypassed the PMO and interacted directly with minister, seeking compliance reports. And it had in its domain everything under the sun, formulating policies "in coal, power, disinvestment, real estate, governance, social and industrial sectors."
This created a dangerous precedent. The NAC members became all-powerful minus accountability.
Unlike the transitory nature of the power enjoyed by politicians who must face the electorate for a scrutiny, the panelists only had to stay in the good books of the Congress president. This fomented elitism and as Hartosh Singh Bal wrote for the Open Magazine in 2010, "institutionalized ad-hocism". If the idea was to absorb talented people into the government's decision-making process, a process called the Rajya Sabha already exists, pointed out Bal.
It is important that we take the right lessons from the declassification of the NAC files. The Constitution has laid down the rules of engagement, and the primacy of the Constitutional posts must be respected. Else we would face another UPA 2 rerun.