Countdown

The Beginning of the End?

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
Page 1 of 1
At every step, senior Congress leaders have been outmanoeuvred by Anna’s aides

What Anna Hazare could not achieve in months, what the continued revelations in the 2G and Commonwealth scams could not ensure, the Congress party has managed in a moment of suicidal decisiveness. The arrest and subsequent attempts to release Hazare have isolated the Government in Parliament, where the BJP, the constituents of what was once the Third Front and the Left have come closer together. And they have isolated the Congress outside Parliament, with even those who have set no store by the Anna movement left aghast by this arbitrary display of government might.

And despite the Congress’ prevarications, it has to face up to the consequences of ordering Hazare’s arrest. At the very press conference where Home Minister P Chidambaram, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal and Minister for Information and Broadcast-ing Ambika Soni were explaining that the decision to arrest Anna Hazare was taken by the Delhi Police and the Government had no hand in it, Chidamba- ram declared that he had told the Police Commis- sioner to address the media about the arrest. He left no one in doubt about who did the telling between the Home Minister and the Police Commissioner.

A CLASH OF MUKHOTAS

From the very beginning of the movement, it was the image that Anna Hazare projected that was important. For much of the country, Hazare was a largely unknown commodity with a reputation as a Gandhian, who often took a stand against corruption. It was an image that did not bear critical scrutiny, but then he was rarely, if ever, subjected to that scrutiny. A compliant electronic media helped by never once taking a critical look at his past.

Soon after he emerged in the national consciousness as the leader of the fight against corruption, he committed the error of praising Narendra Modi. The resulting furore ensured that the people around him—such as activist and former Income Tax officer Arvind Kejriwal, former IPS officer Kiran Bedi and lawyer Prashant Bhushan—never again left him on his own to address the media. Ever since, he has not made any public appearance, whether on TV or in person, where he has not been accompanied by one or the other of his close associates, who often guide or correct him when he hazards saying something that has not been previously discussed among them.

The people behind Anna have made good use of his public image, riding the wave of public resentment generated by the continual revelations about corruption in the Government. Attempts by the Government to besmirch the reputation of Anna and his supporters have proved to be counterproductive. Given that the target of public ire was corruption in government, such attempts have only increased this ire.

As Anna’s stock has risen, the stock of Manmohan Singh, the Government’s own public face with a reputation for probity, has been on the decline. The 2G scam has seen the role of the Prime Minister’s Office come under close scrutiny, and at the very least raised questions about the ease with which Manmohan Singh seemed to have overlooked wrongdoing by his Cabinet ministers.

When Anna and his team presented their version of the Jan Lokpal Bill, one of the crucial points of difference with the Government version was whether the PM’s office should come under its purview. Given that the PMO’s role was questionable in both the Commonwealth Games and 2G scams, this was bad strategy by the Government from the very beginning. While constitutionally speaking, there were reasons to moderate the conditions under which the PM could be summoned by the Lokpal, in terms of public perception, both the BJP and Left had already said they had no objections to the PM falling under the purview of the Bill. Manmohan Singh had also added that at a personal level he had no objections. In the public mind, this seemed to suggest the Congress had only directed its efforts at keeping any future Congress Prime Minister out of the Bill’s purview.

It was against this background that Anna Hazare’s decision to go on fast from 16 August became known to the Congress. The party and Government had enough time to prepare their response, and it was clear when the Prime Minister spoke from the Red Fort on 15 August what this response would be: “Those who don’t agree with this Bill can put forward their views to Parliament, political parties and even the press. However, I also believe that they should not resort to hunger strikes and fasts unto death.’’

Rahul Gandhi was very much part of this decision in his first few days as the de facto head of the party (‘Rahul’s New Role’ page 24), holding an hour-and-a-half long meeting with the Prime Minister and other senior leaders in Sonia’s office a day before Hazare’s arrest. In going along with the decision, the PM and Rahul relied on advisors such as Chidambaram and Sibal, but in the same way that Manmohan’s image had faded when confronted with Hazare, his advisors’ acumen proved to be no match for the strategy of protest worked out by Hazare’s aides.

TOO MANY LAWYERS

Perhaps both Chidambaram and Sibal had been overly impressed by the success of strong-arm tactics directed against Ramdev. The Baba’s comic attempts to flee in drag and his subsequent threats to raise an armed militia further damaged his credibility, effectively ending his role in the anti-corruption movement. But the difference this time round was that Anna’s advisors had already seen what had happened to Ramdev and had made attempts to ensure that the Government would not get away so easily.

Both Sibal and Chidambaram tended to see matters in legal terms, treating each public appearance as a day in court, where they were hoping to convince a judge. In court, it does not matter whether a lawyer has argued differently in another case, it does not matter if what he says in one court contradicts what he says in another, but it is not an approach that works well with the public. Consider Kapil Sibal’s case. He is the man who had publicly stated that the entire loss in the 2G scam was ‘notional’. As for Chidambaram, his own role in the entire 2G scam — in the course of which he was in constant touch with A Raja over the best means to distribute spectrum — remains one of the key issues to be investigated. Given this background, the irony of these two men claiming the moral high ground for the Government was not lost on anyone.

In contrast, the Anna movement was not short of legal minds either, but it always gave pre-eminence to the public impact of its actions. It was one thing for the Government to create a mess for itself by denying Anna that very right to protest that it had claimed for Rahul Gandhi in Bhatta-Parsaul village, or to argue against the very idea of an indefinite fast that its own alliance partner Mamata Banerjee had adopted in 2006 (her fast had lasted 26 days) while protesting against land acquisition in Singur. It was quite another for Hazare and Kejriwal to turn even their release from Tihar into a triumph by refusing to step out on the Government’s terms.

SHOOTING THE MESSENGER

Over the course of the past few months, the Government seems to have lost its ability to read the public mood. It has dealt with both Anna Hazare and Ramdev under the assumption that they are the cause of the considerable public anger. But neither Hazare nor Ramdev would have gathered the support they did without the events that preceded these public movements. The 2G and Commonwealth Games scams were not manufactured by either of the two men.

For over a decade, it had become received wisdom that corruption was no longer an important issue in the public mind. Politicians facing serious charges had been re-elected often enough, and the prevalence of day-to-day corruption and the sheer repetitiveness of stories of corruption involving politicians and bureaucrats seemed to have numbed the electorate. This changed last year

during the Commonwealth Games. Collapsing bridges and stadium roofs and the embarrassing state of the Games village days before they were to start focused attention on the mismanagement of the Games.

The 2G scam was already under investigation, but the release of the Radia tapes, with their indication that ministers, corporates, power brokers and journalists were all part of a vast network that facilitated access to power in Delhi added to the public anger. Former Telecom Minster A Raja and chairman of the Commonwealth Games organising committee Suresh Kalmadi are already in jail. Attention has shifted to the roles of Congress leaders such as Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit, who oversaw much of the spending for the Games and the Prime Minister’s Office, which seems to have deliberately looked away from wrongdoing in the Government.

This was what Hazare brought to his fast. The Government failed to realise that simply by picking up Hazare it could do nothing to dissipate the anger that had built up. This became obvious within the first few hours of Hazare’s arrest, undoubtedly aided by some hysteria on news channels. It also added an additional and important dimension to the battle against corruption. Even those who saw nothing much to admire in Anna Hazare have come to believe that the Government is willing to subvert basic constitutional rights on any pretext for its petty ends.

Whatever the immediate outcome of the movement, the fact is the Government has now permanently ceded the initiative to Anna’s movement. It is now up to the Congress to find a way out to mitigate or contain the damage.

COUNTDOWN FOR THE GOVERNMENT

The immediate challenge will be the contents of the Lokpal Bill. By failing to keep the opposition on board from the very beginning, the Government has already lost the political support that it could have easily garnered. Consider Nitin Gadkari’s response on 2 June to Pranab Mukherjee’s letter of 31 May, seeking the views of the BJP on contentious issues related to the Bill.

Gadkari wrote: ‘You will appreciate that in our governance model the Constitution is supreme. Sovereignty lies with the Indian Parliament in the matter of litigation. Therefore, views of various interested parties have to be placed before Parliament or political parties which are represented in Parliament through their members so that the parties and eventually Parliament can take a final view in the matter.’ This should have been exactly what the Congress wanted to hear, but then came the rider explaining why the party was not ready to help out: ‘However, though not having felt the necessity of ever involving political parties, particularly those in Opposition in this entire debate…’    

This intransigence of the opposition comes with the realisation that the Congress is vulnerable. The BJP has looked listless ever since the 2009 electoral defeat, and it continues to do so, but the party as well as the Left and a host of regional parties opposed to the Congress today realise the next election is likely to be about voting the Congress out of power. It leaves a great deal of time for tactical alliances to form.  

With the opposition united and public mood overwhelmingly against the party, it is clear that the Lokpal Bill prepared by the Government will have to go through a major overhaul. The party will have to show flexibility that it has so far failed to display. It is difficult to now see how the Prime Minister can be kept out of the Bill. But beyond the Bill, in terms of political symbolism, it may have to face up to the fact that Kalmadi will not be the last Congress leader to face legal scrutiny. This leaves the Congress in a bind; the more it defends people like Sheila Dixit, the more it damages its image, but asking her to leave office is only going to increase the clamour for accountability that goes to the very top, reaching the Prime Minister’s office.

As it is, the Congress strategy of letting Manmohan act as a shield for all its misdemeanours has run its course. The party has been placing much hope in the fact that a young leader like Rahul will lead its next election campaign against an ageing and decrepit BJP. Now that matters less and less. It may even be time for the party to ask whether the normally cautious Rahul can run the risk of a major political setback in his first outing. But then the thought of another figurehead after Manmohan can also give the party no cause for hope. 

The greatest fear is that this government may be entering a phase of policy paralysis, much like the one that afflicted the last years of the Narasimha Rao Government, thanks to the Jain hawala case. The attention of this government will now increasingly be focused on damage control, especially since the future of the next Nehru-Gandhi is tied to what unfolds over the next few years. The policy drift is evident; it will only get worse. Perhaps it is fair to note that the Congress deserves what comes its way. But the country does not.