We, the Fools

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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The Lokpal has been left in the lurch. Who is to blame? Just about everybody who claimed to be in the Bill’s favour

For much of the year, politics in India has been dominated by the Lokpal Bill. As citizens, we had been told many things by many of those involved in pressing for such a bill, but they all appeared to agree on one thing. Team Anna told us it wanted a strong Lokpal Bill, the Congress told us it wanted a strong Lokpal Bill, and the BJP told us it wanted a strong Lokpal Bill. What is obvious now is that they were using those words to mean something that only they fully understood, and we citizens were foolish enough not to realise that we were only incidental spectators.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean --- neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

—Through the Looking Glass

And what did this quest for mastery involve? For Team Anna, it was about a mastery over politics in this country. Much like its version of the Lokpal, the team wanted to control the political agenda, direct Parliament and influence elections, all without being accountable to anyone. By the end of 2011, as the Winter Session of Parliament began, it seemed people had seen through Team Anna’s game. For the Congress, it was something else. The ruling party had lied and half-lied so many times, had been shown up so often, that it seemed that its only hope to redeem itself before the session’s end would be to finally show some sincerity over the Bill. For the BJP, the stakes were somewhat more complex. The main opposition party had gained so much from the Congress’ prevarications and Team Anna’s partly-overt support, that if it had managed to display a genuine desire to get the Bill through, it could have cornered much of the credit.

But, on 29 December 2011, by the stroke of the midnight hour, it became amply clear to those who had cared to watch Rajya Sabha TV, or the scores of news channels beaming live proceedings of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill debate in the Upper House of Parliament, that the parties they had voted for had collectively taken them for a ride. Irrespective of which side of the divide they stood, Indian politicians had worked together to leave the Lokpal in serious jeopardy, if not for dead.

Team Anna, which had started the mass campaign against corruption as a turf war between people who turn up at candlelight vigils and people who turn up at voting booths, took the ludicrous decision to organise yet another Anna Hazare fast in December when the Winter Session was on. Also, Team Anna’s declaration that it would campaign against the Congress in state elections if its desired version of the Bill was not passed, created the perfect environment for every political party that stood to gain from this to surreptitiously work against its passage.

The Congress had already gone into withdrawal mode by the time it tabled the Bill in the Rajya Sabha on 29 December. The constitutional amendment bill to accord constitutional status to the Lokpal that fell through in the Lok Sabha was the brainchild of Rahul Gandhi, party chief Sonia Gandhi’s heir apparent. Despite the fact that constitutional status would only have toughened the institution that Parliament in particular and politicians in general had promised to create, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led opposition dumped it when the Lok Sabha vote took place on 27 December.

But it bears some examining why Rahul Gandhi’s idea was defeated on the floor of the Lok Sabha. The Congress-led UPA lacked the numbers (a two-thirds majority) to accord the Lokpal constitutional status, but on that day, all it needed was actually just 273 ayes (given the House absences), a bare majority in the Lok Sabha at full strength. An alliance in power should at the very least have managed this. But it did not.

The reasons are not hard to fathom. Scam after scam, the Congress has dealt with any kind of opposing voice—whether from within or outside the polity—with arrogance bordering on contempt. It is the sort of contempt that even a party with a brute majority would usually not summon. The party survives on the simple majority it had cobbled together in 2009 with the help of a few allies. It had treated former allies with disdain once they became irrelevant to its coalition arithmetic. So when its former allies got a chance to embarrass it by thwarting Rahul’s proposal, they were only too happy to join forces with the opposition. The 41-year-old general secretary, after all, was also the man who has bucked all political sense to insist the Congress can gain power on its own in various states and the Centre.

Add to this the game being played by parties such as Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC). This party needed the Congress before the West Bengal polls, but the majority it won on its own has rendered the Congress in that state meaningless. At the Centre, this means the AITMC would prefer general elections sooner than later to consolidate its gains in West Bengal; instability at the Centre works to Mamata’s advantage.

The Congress knew the fate that awaited it in the Rajya Sabha, with even its own allies in the Government demanding their pound of flesh. This political arithmetic governed the conduct of various parties far more than their professed ideologies. This is something that Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi had referred to in his opening remarks, when he accused the BJP of double standards on the issue of including state-level Lokayuktas in the same bill, a demand that had come from Team Anna: “When you went to Jantar Mantar, Mr Jaitley, you never got up and said, ‘All of you are saying that the Lokpal and Lokayukta must be under the same Act, [so] we are objecting.’ Because you wanted to get the claps… [The BJP’s] written note says, ‘You must have Lokayukta and Lokpal under the same Act.’ You go and agree there, and you come to the House and oppose it!” Of course, Singhvi conveniently managed to forget that his party had chosen to ride roughshod over federalism on the premise that India had signed an international convention against corruption. The BSP’s Satish Chandra Mishra ripped that defence apart, quoting from convention documents to show that it did not mandate what the Congress had done.

Even as it defended its actions, the Congress was putting a cynical strategy in place. To begin with, the Government did not introduce the Bill in the Rajya Sabha on 28 December but on the last day of the Winter Session. A minority in the Upper House, it used delaying tactics to get right to the midnight hour.

Two minutes before midnight, as the opposition and treasury benches argued over the Rajya Sabha’s right to complete the deliberations and vote on the Bill, Hamid Ansari, the country’s vice-president and chairman of the House, stood up and ordered that the national song be played. Silence ensued, as MPs stood up for Vande Mataram. Moments later, Ansari adjourned the house sine die.

The BJP and the rest of the opposition streamed out of Parliament’s various gates to hurl accusations at Ansari and the Congress for TV cameras to broadcast live. They spoke of an “orchestrated drama” that the Leader of Opposition in the House Arun Jaitley had referred to in his intervention minutes before it was adjourned. Former BJP Chief Venkaiah Naidu was his usual vocal self: “We heard in the afternoon that this is going to be staged. [Members of the Government] are cowards and that is why they have run away,” he charged. His less experienced colleague in the Rajya Sabha, Balbir

Punj, chose to target Ansari: “The Chair... sat as a mute spectator.”

The BJP and its leaders would like to tell you how upset they are at the Bill fiasco in the Rajya Sabha. Yet, privately, they can’t seem to stop smiling from ear to ear. A senior BJP functionary, among those leading the party’s charge against the Government for its villainous role in the goings-on, told a group of journalists in a private conversation that the current situation “is better than the best for us”. The top BJP leader went on to explain how if the Rajya Sabha had passed the Bill on 29 December or in the wee hours of 30 December, as was being demanded by what clearly looked like a majority in the House, it would have been the best the party could have hoped for.

“The opposition would have at best succeeded in getting three principal amendments included in the Bill. The Government could have gone back to the people and said since it did not have the numbers, it lost on technicalities but got the Bill passed. For us, it would have been a victory too,” the leader explained.

In the actual scenario, however, the Government emerges looking like the villain for orchestrating the disturbances and subsequent adjournment of proceedings. Team Anna, which had retired hurt after a poor show in Mumbai, gets a new lease of life too---enough to come back and haunt the Congress and UPA for failing the Lokpal. By its own admission, the BJP and others had known by the afternoon that a farce would be played out. Yet, MPs across party lines chose to play along.

Inside the House, once it was clear that the Government was in no mood to let the session go past midnight and wanted an adjournment, the opposition began protesting, asking the Chairman to let proceedings go on. At that point, Parliamentary Affairs Minister PK Bansal declared that it was the Government’s prerogative to decide whether the session should be extended. This only aggravated the opposition’s anger.

The day’s proceedings had begun with the opposition protesting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s absence during the Bill’s introduction in the Rajya Sabha. The Chairman had no choice but to adjourn the House for a few minutes until the PM, who also happens to be the Leader of the House, arrived and took his seat. Once he did, he slumped back with his hands folded across his chest—the look of a defeated man, a description that has chased him for the last several months, ever since the UPA-II began floundering under the weight of its own errors.

Even then, the debate had begun well, with three members who happen to be lawyers, Jaitley, Singhvi and Mishra, making emphatic points in the lead-up to an expected vote on the Bill. It seemed we were nearing an end to more than four decades of dilly-dallying over the idea of a Lokpal. It seemed the mess in the Government, often blamed on the lawyers within, would be fixed by lawyers in the Rajya Sabha. By the end of the day, that proved to be just another illusion.

The next afternoon, Jaitley and his counterpart in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, triumphantly read out a long list of reasons why Manmohan Singh must resign. While Jaitley dubbed the Government’s retreat ‘Fleedom at midnight’, much to the delight of TV show hosts later that evening, Swaraj upped the ante, accusing the PM and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee of “not just being mute spectators to the disrobing of democracy, but principal conspirators”.

The two accused the Government of using the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to create enough of a hullabaloo in the House to bail itself out of the situation. Jaitley said that the charade that the Government was to play “was the capital’s worst kept secret” since 6 pm on 29 December.

Drama, there was much. The RJD’s Rajneeti Prasad strolled his way to Minister of State for Personnel V Narayanasamy’s table, picked up a copy of the Bill, and tore it up as he chanted, “This Lokpal won’t do!” According to Jaitley, the Congress had used a friendly party to disrupt the House and keep the Bill from being put to vote. It was BJP leaders, too, who had alerted major news channels of this ‘plan’ in advance, which explains how ‘breaking news’ of the Lokpal’s stumble was being aired well before the actual event.

In playing out this cynical hand, the Congress has staked everything on a desperate gamble. With the AITMC alienated, the only way the Government can ensure survival in the forthcoming Budget Session is by gaining the backing of the Samajwadi Party (SP), led by Mulayam Singh Yadav. This could work if the SP and Congress win enough seats in the Uttar Pradesh polls to form a joint government in Lucknow. Any other scenario would mean that the UPA government at the Centre will live day to day, legislation to legislation, sweating to pass anything that is even slightly controversial, struggling to govern.

The Congress hope is that it will do better than the BJP and its allies in the coming elections in Punjab, Uttarakhand and UP. Wins here would accord it the moral authority it so sorely seems to need. But relying on state victories amounts to relying excessively on a gameplan forged by Rahul Gandhi.

In UP, with its aggressive campaign against Mayawati’s BSP government, the Congress expects to emerge with a tally much higher than the BJP’s and perhaps play a role in government formation. The BJP, meanwhile, is on a sticky wicket in Uttarakhand and Punjab, where there are allegations of rampant corruption against the incumbent governments it runs alone or in alliance. It would rather harp on the Congress’ corruption at the Centre than admit its own misdeeds in the states. It claims that it opposed the Lokayukta provision because of its concern for federalism. The truth is that the day a strong Lokayukta becomes mandatory, two of its most prominent chief ministers, Narendra Modi in Gujarat and Shivraj Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh, will turn vulnerable to probes that could threaten the BJP’s scheme of things.

Hazare claims contempt for all politics, but has chosen to campaign only against the Congress. He is blind to any acts of corruption other than those by Congressmen. And Team Anna, like politicians, expects voters of the world’s largest democracy to be no less blind to the obvious. We, of course, will vote (or not) depending on our inclinations. After this farce, many of us would find it hard to summon the nerve for another sincere engagement with politics.