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Sonia versus Hazare: The battle lines are drawn

Last updated on: November 18, 2011 16:58 IST

Sonia versus Hazare: The battle lines are drawn

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi

On the eve of the winter session of Parliament, rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt narrates how the Congress party views the issues of corruption, Team Anna and Lokpal bill.

 

Congress President Sonia Gandhi's speech, which was read out in her absence in Uttarakhand on November 9, has set the tone for the winter session of Parliament, which begins on November 22, on the Lokpal issue.

 

In her speech, Sonia locked horns with Team Anna for the first time.

In past months, she has engaged in sweet-savoury exchanges with Hazare, who heads the movement for a strong authority -- the Lokpal -- to combat the issue of national corruption. Now, it appears that the Congress president has followed the lead of her son Rahul Gandhi, who wants a constitutional role for the Lokpal on the lines of India's election commissioners.

 

Rahul and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who reportedly pushed her brother to take a strong line against Hazare and his group in the Lok Sabha on August 26, favoured a tough stand against Hazare and his team, a position now echoed by their mother.

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Image: File photo of Anna Hazare addressing media persons in New Delhi along with activist Arvind Kejriwal

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Congress assessment shows support to Team Anna has reduced

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On eve of the winter session, the Congress party's assessment is that the mass support to Team Anna has reduced compared to what it was during the monsoon session. 

An important party functionary, who understands mass movements and its importance for the country, says: "Do you want to say that Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan are Ambedkar, Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru? Like those stalwarts will these people be deciding the destiny of the nation and will people accept it without questioning them?"

 

Congressmen find Anna Hazare's proposed Jan Lokpal Bill as so radical in nature that they get irritated at the mention of it. They argue that even if the Jan Lokpal bill is implemented, as Team Anna wants, it will need workforce of more than 20,000 people.

It will give so much power to the office of Lokpal that overnight power equations between judiciary, executive and legislative body would radically transform.

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Congress party wants to ignore Team Anna

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A senior minister, who deals with the Lokpal bill issue, says that the Congress party wants to ignore Team Anna and wants to come out with a "strong Lokpal bill."

He even jokes that one Indian Revenue Service Officer (Kejriwal) has drafted the Jan Lokpal bill, but the government's new legislation is being sharpened by a team of Indian Administrative Service officers who have a better understanding of how to draft such laws.

 

The exercise is in full swing as Parliament is re-opening. More or less, the decision has been taken that the final version of the Lokpal bill of government will be the medium-size body with some 1,500-plus staff. It is more or less certain that the Central Bureau of Investigation will have more power than what it has today. However, the government will keep the CBI under its clutches for budgetary and administrative purposes.

   

It is very likely that section 6A(1) of the Central Vigilance Commission Act, 2003 will be dropped which requires the CBI to ask for permission of the government to investigate any officers of the central government of the level of joint secretary and above.

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Image: Anna Hazre and Arvind Kejriwal

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This time, the Congress seems more aggressive

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The standing committee of Parliament, headed by Abhishek Manu Singhvi, which is looking into Lokpal bill has given enough signal that the government, surely, will give more teeth to the act than what they have originally proposed.

 

Singhvi, in fact, has already hinted that the standing committee is looking into having, "the correct equilibrium in the holy trinity of the CBI, CVC and Lokpal, and the constitution of the selection and search committee. Excellent progress and a high degree of convergence was achieved."

 

After Hazare's fast in August, events do not appear to have moved much, suggesting, at least for now, no significant reconciliation between the government and Team Anna's positions.

 

Team Anna is likely to launch a third agitation -- it launched protests in April and August -- on the Lokpal bill on the last day of the winter session of Parliament. This time, the Congress party seems more aggressive and prepared than it was on the earlier occasions.

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Image: Anna Hazare

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Digvijay has surely put Team Anna on the defensive

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According to a senior party leader, "After (Team Anna leader) Kejriwal's political campaign against the Congress in Hisar (Haryana, where a by-election was held last month) we have been left with no choice, but to defend our turf aggressively."

 

Sonia's criticism of Hazare's efforts to introduce a strong Lokpal bill gives credence to the belief that party General Secretary Digvijay Singh's shrill campaign against Team Anna has the Congress leader's support. Singh has surely put Team Anna on the defensive. 

 

Team Anna will develop their strategy after reading the final version of Lokpal bill. Since, the Jan Lokpal bill and government's bill will be differing in its fundamental approaches the Team Anna will surely accentuate their campaign against Congress even if Anna's threat of fast may not take place soon.

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Image: Congress general scretary Digvijay Singh

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Lokpal could further slow down government machinery

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There are many reasons why the Congress party and government ministers have disdain for Hazare's team. The top Congress leaders view the Anna agitation from the premise of governance more than as the issue of tackling corruption. Because, the establishment in New Delhi thinks that the CBI, CVC and many other bodies are, already, there to check corruption.

 

Recently, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee privately admitted that the Right to Information Act has grounded governance in South Block and North Block. The fear of getting trapped or harassed under the RTI is so high amongst senior officers that they don't want to take any decisions that they intuitively think fit in the interest of the issue on hand.

The government machinery is moving slow and if an extra-ordinarily strong Lokpal institution comes up in New Delhi entire governance of central government will feel the heat.

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Anti-corruption battle cannot be an anti-Congress fight

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Also, privately, Congress leaders say on the issue of corruption "hum sab nange hain (we are all naked)." No one is clean in Indian politics and the Congress alone cannot be blamed for graft, these leaders say. If the nation wants to fight corruption, they add, it has to be a united fight; the anti-corruption battle cannot be an anti-Congress fight. 

 

After knowing how the main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and other political parties are funded, these Congress leaders point out the stigma of corruption sticks to all political parties. They argue that corruption has wider manifestations in Indian society and it has to be understood in a socio-cultural context.

 

Why should only the Congress party take the brunt of the anti-corruption movement when the BJP's B S Yeddyurappa and regional leaders like Mayawati, J Jayalalitha, Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav have contributed to the current situation where all politicians are looked down upon as corrupt by most Indians?

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The quid pro quo for getting funds binds the Congress as it does the BJP

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A senior advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during the parliamentary debate on the Lokpal bill in the monsoon session, asked this correspondent, "Do you seriously think (BJP leader) Arun Jaitley gets less party funds than (Congress party treasurer) Motilal Vora from the Indian industry?"

 

What he meant was that the quid pro quo for getting funds binds the Congress as it does the BJP and other political parties.

 

The Association for Democratic Reforms, a non government organization, on the basis of income tax returns filed, has determined that in 2008/2009, the Congress party had an income of Rs 496.88 crore; the BJP Rs 220 crore; the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is in power in Uttar Pradesh, Rs 182 crore; the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which then ruled Kerala and West Bengal, Rs 63 crore; the Samajwadi Party, which is an influential player in Uttar Pradesh, Rs 40 crore; and the Nationalist Congress Party, which is an ally of the Congress in New Delhi and Maharashtra, Rs 39 crore.

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'Balance sheets of parties hide more than they reveal'

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Columnist Minhaz Merchant wrote in The Economic Times that 'the balance sheets (of political parties) hide more than they reveal. Large national political parties like the Congress and BJP receive funds through donations. In 2008-2009 (the latest available audited accounts), for example, the Congress had total income of Rs 496.88 crore. The EC (Election Commission) cap for a Lok Sabha candidate's expenditure is Rs 40 lakh. Actual expenditure varies between Rs 10 crore and Rs 50 crore per Lok Sabha seat.'

 

'A major national party contesting, say, 400 Lok Sabha seats as part of a larger coalition would spend at a conservative estimate at least Rs 4,000 crore during a major election campaign. If a party's total income is Rs 500 crore, the deficit of Rs 3,500 crore is obviously made up through unofficial corporate donations. Illegal gratification from myriad scams -- 2G spectrum, Commonwealth Games, rice exports, PPP infrastructure projects, etc -- also finds its way into the electoral system,' Merchant argued.  

 

Congressmen say that the need for huge election funds affects all parties. In view of the reality of election funding and corruption being a complex, pan-Indian issue the Congress party is taking the moral high ground, by saying its leadership has not been tarred by any charges of corruption.

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Congressmen believe Team Anna is supported by forces out to defame Gandhi family

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The Congress party has been attempting grandstanding on corruption by claiming that the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council was debating the Lokpal bill long before it was hijacked by Hazare's team.

 

Some Congressmen believe there is a well-orchestrated pan-India campaign to defame the Gandhi family, particularly Sonia Gandhi. Team Anna is supported, covertly, by such forces, they allege.

These Congressmen fear that the anti-Sonia forces await the day when a Lokpal will be appointed and dozens of cases can be filed against Congress leaders.

 

A senior Congressman questioned if the Hazare movement has a hidden agenda to reopen the infamous Bofors case, which helped bring down Rajiv Gandhi's Congress party government in the 1989 general election. Some Congress party leaders fear that if the Lokpal is granted jurisdiction of CBI, the Lokpal can re-open the Bofors case.

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Congress, BJP or Team Anna do not want to be blamed if things go wrong

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All indications make it clear that the government's draft Lokpal bill will not satisfy Hazare, the BJP and many other political parties.

 

BJP President Nitin Gadkari's statements suggest that his party is not likely to unconditionally support the government's bill. In the coming weeks, there will be intense political activity to score points in the media over the issue. Most important, on everyone's mind is the issue of image for all the players involved in the Lokpal bill.

The Congress, BJP or Team Anna do not want to be blamed if things go wrong, but want to grab all credit if the events satisfy the public.

 

One comforting factor for the Congress party is that the BJP too has many serious problems with Team Anna's Jan Lokpal bill. The Congress is determined to expose the doublespeak of any political forces if they try to take credit through media manipulation for the Lokpal bill. 

 

On one side is the Jan Lokpal bill, which many Indians find scary and unwieldy. On the other hand is the UPA government's attempt to divide Team Anna's agenda and serve up many bills, many acts of legislation and many institutions instead of just one institution of the powerful Lokpal.

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Is there an option before the government?

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Veteran columnist Kuldip Nayar, who disagrees with many aspects of the Jan Lokpal bill, feels, "This government is not aware of the resentment of the people against small and big corruption. I believe people will again come out on the streets if Anna Hazare begins his fast a third time. In spite of knowing his or his team's weaknesses, people will move along with him for the bigger issue. Sarkar jo marzi kar le, yeh movement chalegi (let the government do whatever it wants, this movement will go on)."

Nayar thinks there is no option before the government, but to compromise with Hazare, that things can go wrong for the government if it does not move carefully in Parliament. 

 

That Sonia did not read out her speech in Uttrakhand last week may work in her favour because that footage could have been used by India's news television channels to project a Sonia versus Hazare confrontation. By remaining absent she avoided being directly pitted against Hazare and his issue of corruption, at least on 24/7 news television screens.

 

While debating the political ground realities, a state chief minister told rediff.com: "The most important question in people's minds is this: Is the Indian establishment today capable of providing justice to the common men and women of India? The answer is negative. The Congress party will have to change the mood of the people by acting sincerely on the issue of the Lokpal bill. Unless they do something, the party will remain under pressure in urban India."



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