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Anna's problematic agenda: End of a grave crisis

September 05, 2011 17:04 IST

Team Anna must show some humility instead of imposing its will on society. It doesn't hold a monopoly on understanding how to make governance more inclusive, clean and people-responsive. It must recognise that, finally, it is Parliament that prevailed on the Lokpal legislative process, and that's how things should be, says Praful Bidwai.

India has just emerged from a major political crisis, which could have turned into a veritable disaster. At its centre was an attempt by Anna Hazare and his core supporters to set up a confrontation between Parliament and the people on the Lokpal Bill.

Had Parliament not come into the picture just in time, and had violence broken out, India would have sunk into horrific disorder. This would have spurred calls for draconian measures, which would have further inflamed the situation.

Eventually, Team Anna had to retreat on its basic demand. But it shrewdly converted this into a 'half-victory'. The Times of India, a media group which strongly supported the Hazare campaign, reports that in the critical hours before the special Parliament debate on August 27, the core group took a major decision: Anna would call off his fast within a day because his health had turned precarious. 

That would have meant retreating after taking things to the brink in the deadly game of poker that the group was playing with the government. But the government didn't know of the core group's decision, and asked Parliament to accept the three contentious points raised by Hazare. This gave the campaign a face-saver. Its bluff wasn't called. So it won, right?

Not quite. The Sense-of-the-House motion passed by Parliament by a thumping of the desks was not a voice vote. Its content is a far cry from the group's original demand that the government withdraw its Lokpal Bill and instead pass by August 30 the Jan Lokpal Bill drafted by India against Corruption while bypassing the Standing Committee looking into the legislation.

This was diluted to ask that Parliament resolve to enact the bill in its current session to create independent ombudsmen at the Centre and in the states, with jurisdiction over all civil servants, and including a law requiring 'citizens' charters' to limit the time taken to provide public services like ration cards and driving licences, and to punish breaches of these norms.

The parliamentary motion doesn't even meet the diluted demand. It only says: 'This House agrees in principle on the following issues: a) Citizens' charter b) Lower bureaucracy also to be under the Lokpal through appropriate mechanism c) Establishment of a Lokayukta in the states. And it further resolved to transmit the proceedings to the department-related Standing Committee for its perusal while formulating its recommendations for the Lokpal Bill.'

No deadline was stipulated for the Standing Committee to finish its report and for Parliament to pass the bill. Of course, a moral obligation remains on the government and Parliament to enact an effective Lokpal law, which they cannot afford to ignore politically. The task of lawmaking has been rightly restored to Parliament. This seems like a reasonable compromise by any yardstick -- except Team Anna's "my way or the highway" approach and its arbitrary deadlines.

One must hope that the team learns a vital lesson which another Lokpal activist, and India's best campaigner for the Right to Information Act, Aruna Roy, has lucidly underlined: we must have a mature understanding of dissent; "because I have the right to dissent, I have the obligation to listen" to those who disagree with me. RTI, one of our best laws, was in the works since 1992. After it went to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, as many as 153 amendments were moved to the bill. What finally came out is a robust and worthy product, which empowers citizens.

Team Anna must show some humility and learn from others instead of imposing its will on society. It doesn't hold a monopoly on understanding how to make governance more inclusive, clean and people-responsive. It shouldn't allow its organisational achievements, and the support it attracted from numerous volunteers, to go its head. It must recognise that, finally, it is Parliament that prevailed on the Lokpal legislative process, and that's how things should be.  

The Congress party, which leads the government, also has many lessons to learn from the Lokpal agitation which sent shockwaves through the political system and precipitated a first-rate crisis that almost spun out of control.

The Congress committed blunder after blunder on the Lokpal issue. The process started in March, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited Hazare to discuss the bill, and conferred special legitimacy upon him. When Hazare launched his fast, the Congress didn't reckon with the extent of upper-middle class support it would attract, and even less with the carefully articulated social networking-based campaign unleashed by IAC, with huge resources, both financial and human.

However, as the number of Anna's supporters swelled, the Congress panicked and announced a joint drafting committee with five members from each side -- instead of a broadly representative body with members drawn from different political parties and NGOs.

This blunder laid the basis for Team Anna's claim that it represents the people in a special way, in contraposition to the government; and that the government is isolated because it isn't serious about an effective Lokpal Bill and wants to shield the corrupt.

Arresting Hazare on August 16 before he had begun his fast, and sending him to Tihar jail, was easily the most inept decision that could have been made, while ignoring intelligence reports that this would aggravate the crisis.

The police imposed absurd conditions on his fast -- three days' duration, with a gathering of no more than 5,000 supporters. This grossly underestimated growing public sympathy for Anna's right of protest irrespective of agreement with his agenda and methods.

The government released Hazare in panic. It didn't anticipate that he would refuse to leave Tihar unless allowed to fast for a fortnight in Ramlila maidan. He won the battle for public sympathy.

Once the Ramlila maidan spectacle began to draw big crowds, the claim that Team Anna speaks for the people escalated to the arrogant assertion that it alone represents the Indian people. Soon, Arvind Kejriwal would say that Parliament may have supreme lawmaking powers, but the people come first; Parliament must listen to Us the People. Democracy thus degenerated into majoritarianism, with all its arrogance and intolerance.

The Congress failed to counter this. On the one hand, its spokespersons abused Hazare's core group as 'armchair fascists, overground Maoists, and closet anarchists funded by invisible donors' with foreign links. On the other hand, it opened talks with the group. Instead of fielding veterans and skilled crisis managers, it appointed lawyers (P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid) as negotiators. They took a technical, not political, approach, and failed.

The Congress waited far too long before bringing in an old warhorse like Pranab Mukherjee as its chief negotiator. Equally incomprehensibly, it didn't depute Maharashtra leaders like Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sushilkumar Shinde earlier to talk directly to Hazare while bypassing his hardline supporters. It didn't even convene an all-party meeting until August 24. Holding it, and Deshmukh's mediation, finally shifted the balance of forces against Team Anna and clinched the compromise.

Clearly, the Congress suffered because of Sonia Gandhi's illness and absence. Team Anna treated her with far greater deference than Dr Singh and would have been more amenable to her persuasion. This again exposes the leadership crisis in the party and the limitations of the bureaucratic approach that comes naturally to Dr Singh. The Congress must encourage a second, and a third, rung of leaders to emerge if it wants to avert similar crises.

Hazare threatens yet other crises in the near future on issues such as electoral reform, education, and land acquisition. One doesn't know how much comprehension he has of such complex issues. Going by his record in his own village, he doesn't give the impression of someone who is enlightened. Indeed, he remains mired in casteist prejudice and faith in authoritarian methods, such as tying people to trees and whipping them for consuming alcohol.

Hazare has been quoted as saying that it's in the order of nature that "every village should have one chamar, one sunar (goldsmith), one kumhar (potter), etc. They should all do their work according to their occupation." No wonder Dalits and OBCs distrust him. So should all democratically-minded people.

Hazare's philosophy is a naïve, crude and almost despotic form of low-minded Gandhianism. He can be manipulated by crafty people. The fact that he has a good equation with Vilasrao Deshmukh speaks volumes about his naivety.  

Hazare now intends to take up electoral reform, focused on the rights to reject and recall candidates. These are extremely difficult to implement in a continent-sized country. For instance, how many rounds of election should we have if all candidates are rejected? And given that three-fourths of our legislators are elected with less than 50 percent votes, what should be the threshold of signatures that triggers recall? It's far more relevant to take up election funding and the proportional representation system of electing lawmakers.

But will adamant Anna listen?

Praful Bidwai