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A retreat has been sounded in Anna vs govt battle

By B Raman
August 29, 2011 11:49 IST
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The public perception at this stage of the battle is that the victory thus far belongs to Anna Hazare and his followers, but in reality it may turn out to be a victory of mixed proportions, feels B Raman.

In military lingo, a retreat is a temporary withdrawal from a confrontation in order to give oneself time to recoup losses and plan a new strategy.

In the olden, pre-modern days, battles used to be fought from sunrise to sunset. At sunset a retreat used to be sounded, signalling an end to the day's fighting. The two sides would withdraw in order to rest, attend to the injured, repair the damaged weapons and plan the fight for the next day.

A retreat has been sounded in the epic anti-corruption battle between Anna Hazare's followers and the government. The two sides have staged a momentary withdrawal from the confrontation and are now busy assessing their gains and losses thus far and planning the next phase of the battle.

The public perception at this stage of the battle is that the victory thus far belongs to Anna and his followers, but in reality it may turn out to be a victory of mixed proportions.

It is also the public perception that the government stands humiliated because of its mishandling of the crusade, but in reality, after having badly mishandled the beginning of the battle, partly, due to the lack of a political finesse, the government has retrieved some of the lost ground towards the end through its manoeuvring skills in Parliament and by exploiting the confusion in the BJP leadership caused by the diktat for a volte face from the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.

The flow of youth power to Anna's side caused an alarm in the Congress as well as the BJP/RSS. The two sides reacted to the alarm in different ways. The Congress realised that by failing to bring its Generation Next headed by Rahul Gandhi into the battle, it has totally failed to mobilise its youth power in its support.

The RSS realised that the flow of youth power to the Anna team might weaken the future flow of youth to the ranks of the RSS.

There was a similar alarm in Anna's camp due to his failure to make an impact on the minds of Muslim and Dalit youth, who looked askance at Anna and his team. They looked upon Anna's youth army as largely drawn from the English-educated new middle class of the mega cities consisting of passionate recruits belonging to the so-called upper castes.

The participation of Muslim and Dalit youth was minimal, notwithstanding actor Aamir Khan's electrifying support to Anna and his Jan Lokpal Bill.

It was at this stage that the crusaders on the one side and the mainstream political class on the other started searching for a temporary compromise to persuade Anna to end his fast in terms,   that would be mutually acceptable and mutually exploitable as victory.

The initiative for a compromise came from Anna who tactically gave up his demand for a time-bound primacy to the consideration and eventual adoption of his Jan Lokpal Bill by Parliament. Instead, he offered to accept a face-saving, mid-term formula under which Parliament would unanimously endorse three of his suggestions for covering the entire bureaucracy through the proposed anti-corruption mechanism, the setting up of similar mechanisms in the states and a citizen's charter for good governance.

Both the Congress and BJP pounced on his offer because it enabled them to end Anna's fast, which was becoming increasingly worrisome and gave them time to examine new strategies to reverse the increasing flow of youth power to the Anna side. The result: The sense of the House resolution endorsing Anna's three suggestions, its communication to Anna by the prime minister and the end of his fast.

Anna himself has conceded that it was only a partial victory for his side. The fast has ended, but the battle for the Jan LokpPal Bill continues. The government is not in a position to celebrate any victory because there is none, but it is heaving a sigh of relief over the way it managed to retrieve at least partially the lost ground before the retreat was sounded.

The two sides now have a better measure of each other's strengths and weaknesses. The government had underestimated the strengths and intelligence of the Anna side. Many of its initial blunders like arresting Anna on the basis of a police report and not a medical report and sending him to Tihar jail were due to this underestimation aggravated by political crudity.

The Anna side had overestimated its ability to prevail by using the weapon of the fast in order to sharpen the confrontation. The mainstream political class came out strongly against its rhetoric and methods. The spectacular impact of the Anna campaign was largely confined to Delhi and Mumbai. In the rest of India, the impact was much less spectacular.

Two lessons clearly stand out from the battle so far. First, the government can no longer afford to drag its feet on the question of the creation of a Lokpal mechanism. Second, the Anna Team will not be able to have its diktat for the adoption of its Bill enforced on the political class.

A new substantive compromise has to be found which will accommodate some more of the provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill and at the same time take into account some of the reservations and concerns of the gvernment and the rest of the political class. If the search for a new compromise has to be successful, there is need for a sustained multi-partisan engagement with new dramatis personae on both sides.

Home Minister P Chidambaram and Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal have damaged their credibility by the way they handled the Anna Camp and forced it to take up arms against the government in a battle that the government was not in a position to win.

Kiran Bedi, the former IPS officer, has damaged her credibility by her antics on the stage which looked like what in Tamil we call a Therukoothu (street play) and by her fulminations against the political class and the parliamentarians. Taking advantage of the hospitality offered by Barkha Dutt in We The People programme on the NDTV on August 28, Kiran Bedi tried to rationalise her antics by projecting them as a game-changer.

She would not have carried conviction to many people. The time and the importance of the occasion of the fast called for dignity and restraint in conduct on the part of the leaders of the movement. Ms Bedi failed to exhibit both.

Arvind Kejriwal, the other member of the brains-trust of the Anna Team, conducted himself with greater dignity and restraint than Kiran Bedi, but he came out rightly or wrongly as an uncompromising individual with whom it is difficult to negotiate.

The government as well as Team Anna need a new team of advisers. The entrance on to the stage of Generation Next of the Congress was a welcome development. Generation Next of the Congress projected a better image of themselves than Generation Next of the BJP, but Rahul Gandhi unfortunately failed to rise to the occasion.

He could have utilised the opportunity to project himself as a new statesman on the horizon, by confining his initial intervention in the Lok Sabha to making a statesmanlike appeal to Anna to end his fast and to sending a message to the youth of the country that their cry of anger and anguish for a corruption-free India has been heard by him and the Congress and they will act accordingly.

He failed to do so. He came out as a thoughtless, not a thoughtful leader. The ultimate victory in the crusade against corruption is going to be decided by the youth of the mega cities. It is a badly alienated lot today. Team Anna has made some progress in winning many of them over to its side. The BJP has not been able to because of its forced penchant to look at the scene and the events through RSS eyes.

The Congress has many promising youth leaders and cadres, but there is none in the party capable of galvanising them and using them to catch the imagination of the youth of the country.

An uncertain and unpredictable next phase of the battle lies ahead. As the Reveille is sounded, the Anna Team will resume the battle with greater energy and greater sense of reality. One cannot say the same thing of the government and the Congress.

If the Congress has to win over the youth of the country, it has to convince them that it is sincere in its determination to end corruption. It is the perceived lack of sincerity in the Congress that is driving more and more youth into the arms of Anna.

The days of dragging the feet are over. The youth demands action against corruption here and now. The Congress is unable to hear and understand the message. It continues to nurse illusions that it can finally prevail with patchwork ideas and solutions through its manoeuvring skills. It will not be able to.

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B Raman