It was as hot and humid an August afternoon as any. Braving the heat radiated by the sandstone structure of the grand Parliament building and well-laid tarmac of the road within the complex, stood a group of almost a dozen young Congress MPs. The temperature was quite oppressive, but they hardly seemed to notice.
The MPs, including some of the Government’s current and former junior ministers—Jitin Prasada, Sachin Pilot, RPN Singh and Arun Yadav—had emerged from the Lok Sabha only minutes earlier, and had gathered close to where the news TV cameras are stationed in the complex: opposite the mammoth statue of the Father of The Nation. They were there to have their voices heard, loud and clear. They were there to shout slogans against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Tempers were running high on account of what had happened during the Lok Sabha’s post-lunch sitting. Members of the BJP had shouted down Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal over the issue of initiating a discussion on the Lokpal issue. The Speaker had adjourned the House, and the young Congress MPs rushed out to decry what they called the BJP’s “tyranny” in not letting Parliament function. As the TV cameras rushed to capture this bout of sloganeering, journalists converged at the spot from all sides. It was a good opportunity to ask them what they thought of their boss’ views on the Lokpal. It was also a good opportunity for the Congress MPs to announce that they stood four-square behind their leader.
It was Friday, 26 August 2011, and just a few minutes after noon during Zero Hour that day, Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi had made an unscheduled intervention in Parliament to speak on the Lokpal issue, breaking his so-called ‘silence’ on the street protests that appeared to have forced the Government’s agenda on the matter of tackling corruption. Notably, this was the first time since he returned as Amethi’s representative to the 15th Lok Sabha in May 2009 that he spoke in Parliament; his membership thus far had been remarkable only for his silence and absence. Anyhow, for about 15 minutes, amid protests and interruptions from the opposition, Rahul Gandhi spoke on the Lokpal impasse.
Members of the BJP were incensed that Speaker Meira Kumar had made a special allowance to the Congress leader: he spoke without notice, and for 15 minutes instead of the usually permitted three minutes (for an unscheduled intervention, as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj later explained). In all, it had been a session of fierce glares and angry words.
There were hecklers outside the House too. As the young Congress MPs stood there, justifying their leader’s ideas, a man appeared barely 50 metres away, shouting “Inquilab Zindabad!” (long-live the revolution). Before the security personnel could rush to stop him, he had taken off his shirt to reveal a T-shirt bearing the slogan, ‘I am Anna’. The guards dragged him away, trying to muzzle him. But the embarrassment did not end there. As soon as the commotion began, the TV cameras abandoned the Congress MPs—mid-argument—to rush off and capture images of the intruder’s protest. It was later found that he had entered Parliament on a visitor’s pass recommended by an MP, a common practice.
It’s also a done thing for MPs to shout slogans outside the House. In fact, Rahul Gandhi himself has led a silent sit-in protest in front of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. But of late, that symbol of peaceful resistance appears to have been appropriated by those protesting against the Indian National Congress and its current set of leaders: supporters of Anna Hazare.
The man shouting those anti-government slogans was one such supporter. On the Lokpal issue, as a participating MP later admitted, TV crews have been focusing more on what protestors have to say than the Government’s declarations. This spells both opportunities and worries for Indian politicians.
ON THE FACE of it, Rahul Gandhi’s Zero Hour speech in Parliament was at best a few months too late or a few hours too early. Since he is an important leader of the Congress, and the Bill had been under consideration for long, he could have spoken up much earlier. The tussle with Anna Hazare and the ‘civil society’ backing him, too, began months ago. Even Hazare’s second fast was 10 days old by the time Rahul Gandhi spoke.
In a few hours, Parliament was all set to debate the fresh demands Hazare had laid out, and he could have spoken then. Yet, he chose to time it differently. It seems he wanted to be heard separately, and in a manner that would set the agenda for the party. The MPs who had come out to protest against the BJP and back his views on the Lokpal Bill were to be found in TV studios later that evening, engaged in discussions that would help propagate the message further.
What Gandhi spoke was not in consonance with what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said just a day earlier, appealing to Anna Hazare to end his fast. Gandhi, instead, said that more important than ending the impasse was tackling the issue of corruption head-on. “I believe that the real question before us, as representatives of the people of India, today, is whether we are prepared to take the battle against corruption head on. It is not a matter of how the present impasse will resolve, it is a much greater battle. There are no simple solutions…Witnessing the events of the last few days, it would appear that the enactment of a single Bill will usher in a corruption-free society. I have serious doubts about this belief. An effective Lokpal law is only one element in the legal framework to combat corruption. The Lokpal institution alone cannot be a substitute for a comprehensive anti-corruption code,” said Gandhi.
“Madam Speaker,” the leader announced, in the course of his speech, “Why not elevate the debate? Let us take it further and fortify the Lokpal Bill by making it a constitutional body like the Election Commission of India.”
Next, he took on the protests, perceived even within his own party as popular enough to erode the Congress’ urban electoral base: “A process divorced from the machinery of an elected Government that seeks to undo the checks and balances created to protect the supremacy of Parliament… sets a dangerous precedent for our democracy. Today, the proposed law is against corruption. Tomorrow, the target may be something less universally heralded. It may attack the plurality of our society and our democracy… I believe we need more democracy within our political parties. I believe in Government funding of our political parties. I believe in empowering our youth in opening the doors of our closed political system in bringing fresh blood into politics and into this House. I believe in moving our democracy deeper and deeper into our villages and our cities.”
That attack on the protestors and their methods almost threw the rapprochement process into limbo. But, in a way, he was listing out in Parliament what he had been trying to do outside and within the Congress organisation.
Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal agitation seemed to be resonating well with Indian youth, and Gandhi could no longer afford to choose the timing of his interventions. “Our worry has been that it is the Congress party that has brought in important Acts like the Rural Guarantee Scheme, Right to Information and compulsory education. Yet, even the youth seem more interested in joining the anti-government protests. We need to go back and tell them what the Congress stands for,” a young Congress MP tells Open.
If young urban voters move away, it could affect the future of the Congress far more than that of the JD-U, RJD or any other party that relies predominantly on rural support. That the Anna protest did not have a caste-specific or communal support base, of course, was not lost on Rahul Gandhi. He himself has been speaking against identity-led political mobilisations, asking voters to vote for those who deliver good governance. That it should be Anna Hazare’s movement that manages to rally Indians across the identity spectrum, thus, was not something easy to come to terms with. It was, and is, a threat to his agenda, especially if the Government is seen as delivering poor governance.
There are other implications too. The pace of the youth empowerment drive that his party says Gandhi is ushering in, might well be decided by Anna Hazare and his future protests. The first indication that Hazare’s interventions in governance would be multi-pronged came on 28 August, when he triumphantly broke his fast. He announced that his fast was merely being suspended, and the agitation had other goals to achieve. For the Congress and UPA caught in scam after scam, time is running out. If the urban middle-class moves away, its hold on power will weaken.
The party has been quick to take its cues from Rahul Gandhi. “I want to make it clear that the Congress party has always stood for a comprehensive and strong Lokpal,” says party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi, “Indeed, it has made its stand clear through its General Secretary that it would like a Lokpal to be even stronger, even more elevated in the sense of a constitutional status body.” Note that Singhvi is not just an ordinary MP, he is also chairman of the Standing Committee that is looking into the Lokpal Bill.
The BJP on its part has been quick to run down Rahul Gandhi’s views. “I always believe that when you have no solution to offer to a problem, you talk of systemic changes and get into generalisations,” says Arun Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. Meanwhile, Jaitley’s Lok Sabha colleague Sushma Swaraj, while speaking on the Lokpal debate on 27 August, sarcastically dubbed Rahul Gandhi’s speech “an address to the nation”.
The BJP bears a clear mood of triumph these days. The Anna movement, the party believes, could soon turn into an anti-UPA wave that is bound to reignite its hopes of recapturing power at the Centre. “A lot of BJP workers and voters were part of the protests,” says BJP MP and spokesperson Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, “Though they did not carry the BJP flag, they were our supporters. Inside Parliament, we are the custodians of the fight against corruption. Raja and Kalmadi are in jail because of us.”
But, even within the BJP, there is a source of worry. There is a buzz in the party that despite its top leaders doing well in Parliament on the Lokpal issue, BJP President Nitin Gadkari is too eager to cede the opposition space to the likes of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. On the day Hazare broke his fast, Gadkari released a statement from Nagpur, addressing Hazare: ‘We promise you that the BJP will always be ready to rally around you and march forward under your leadership should the need arise any time in future to fulfil your dream of a truly democratic corruption free India. Anna, rest assured, we will not let you down in and outside Parliament. Nor will we allow the government to betray you any further.’ Gadkari’s offer to let Anna lead and the party follow, obviously, has ruffled a lot of feathers within the party leadership.
Contrast Gadkari’s Nagpur statement with the contents of the letter he wrote Hazare on 25 August from his office in Delhi. ‘We strongly deplore the government’s changing stance and its visible hardening of postures in dealing with your agitation. The BJP warns the government against any misadventure in this regard…Let me assure you once again that the BJP has been all along with you in your crusade against corruption. In fact, it was the BJP that had exposed the UPA’s scams and scandals inside and outside parliament,’ Gadkari wrote, trying to claim ownership of the anti-corruption drive.
Three days later, Gadkari spoke of the party following Hazare. The significance of the statement emerging from Nagpur, home to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is not lost on the party’s leaders either. A senior leader, asked to comment on Gadkari’s statement, tries to laugh the matter off, saying, “I don’t think he (Anna Hazare) will become party president.” But sources in the BJP reveal that, in private, no one’s joking about the development, and that the lower rungs of the party leadership are seriously worried about the RSS diktats mouthed by Gadkari.
In the final reckoning, it is these that could play spoiler for the BJP, hurting its chances of converting the Congress’ loss into electoral gains for itself. “All we need to focus on till the next Lok Sabha election is price rise and corruption,” says a BJP parliamentarian, “If we don’t lead the crusade, someone else will.”