Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters Sheela Bhatt
While tackling the differences over the Lokpal Bill with social activist Anna Hazare and his team, the Manmohan Singh government has landed in a bigger mess by sending Hazare to Tihar jail. Sheela Bhatt explains why.
The man condemned by the government as 'a small-time leader of an obscure non-governmental organisation until a year ago' will be now emerge from New Delhi's Tihar Jail a 'hero'. He will be easily identifiable to many Indians who are against corruption.
By taking the harsh decision of not permitting Hazare to conduct his protest against corruption in New Delhi, the United Progressive Alliance government has made the position of those who are opposing Hazare on legal, logical or ideological grounds difficult.
The UPA government tried hard to present a humble face by saying the Delhi police took the decision under the provisions of the law.
Home Minister P Chidambaram told a press conference on Tuesday, "This is not a pleasant task and none of us are happy trying to explain the circumstances under which certain events have taken place. It is a painful duty and we are performing it with the seriousness it deserves."
The home minister's humble tone didn't carry any weight.
President Pratibha Patil's and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Independence Day speeches indicated that the government was unlikely to be flexible on the issue of Hazare's fast.
Both speeches made it clear that there was no space left for negotiations with Hazare and hs team. The Congress party, which heads the UPA, is not ready to budge on the issue of keeping the judiciary and the prime minister under the Lokpal's ambit.
The final action of clamping down on Team Anna clearly suggested that the government is aggressive on the Lokpal bill issue, and will not be deterred about taking harsh action.
Congress, govt see RSS designs behind Hazare's fast
Photographs: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
Pranav Sachdev, a lawyer associated with Hazare's campaign, feels, "The bottom line is that the government is totally opposed to the Jan Lokpal bill. Why would these politicians pass any bill which would make them accountable to the people?"
Government sources say the decision to arrest Hazare and members of his team came about for two reasons. The Congress party and the UPA government are convinced that the forces behind Hazare are "anti-Congress forces."
The government has reasons to believe that individuals backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh may have joined the protest had Hazare's fast gone on as scheduled.
That also means the 'anti-Congress' supporters at the venue of Hazare's fast would have dominated national television. There was no scope left for the government to allow Hazare's fast because once it commenced before television cameras, how would Hazare end his fast without securing concessions on the Lokpal bill?
And if the government did not offer concessions, it could have earned popular ire.
The government believes that small non-government organisations ideologically opposed to the Congress party are also rallying behind Hazare.
"If the Congress and the UPA government smell 'RSS' anywhere, they try to justify anything and everything. Even secular issues like corruption become communal," says a Hazare supporter from Mumbai who works at a research organisation.
The government appears to have erred in reading Hazare in such a simplistic way. Even if he is supported by some saffron forces, it does not take away the issue of corruption from the people.
How the government blundered
Photographs: Krishnendu Halder/Reuters
The government believes that "reason and logic" is on its side. Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni and others have been asking, "What's the great hurry in starting the fast on August 16?"
"Why can't the India Against Corruption movement wait till Parliament debates the Lokpal bill?" they ask.
"The debate is on, and the government has not come in the way of that process, so the government thought it is doing no wrong in taking a tough stand against Hazare's fast," says a Union minister, a member of the government's Group of Ministers for the Media.
Alas, the government is using its brains where it needs to connect emotionally with Indian hearts.
While handling the Hazare movement, the government has made many errors in drafting its strategy.
First, the government ridiculed Hazare. Then they leaked the Justice P B Sawant Committee report on a couple of Hazare's foundations. Then, they invited Hazare to be a member of the committee to draft the bill.
While doing so, the government blundered by not inducting other political parties to share the burden of cajoling Hazare, who is against the political class.
Also, they have been unsuccessful in wooing political parties who have serious differences with Hazare's version of the Lokpal bill. The Congress is unable to exploit the chasm between him and other political forces.
Also, the government and the Congress party seemed divided and confused in how to handle Hazare.
The government lacked the political quotient to tackle Hazare. A bureaucratic approach took over, when someone with credibility from the Congress party needed to speak, because there are not many inside the government, who can currently stand up to Hazare.
Hazare has the public image of someone who will not compromise with the political class.
'Congress lacks political management'
Coomi Kapoor, a senior editor and columnist for The Indian Express newspaper, believes, "Anna's face is the winner. People believe he has nothing to gain and nothing to lose in life. That makes it difficult for his opponents to stick any charge against him."
A Cabinet minister, who is disgusted with his government's strategy for tackling Hazare, told Rediff.com, "My party (the Congress) lacks political management. It has taken a series of bad decisions. Lawyers are running the government."
"The political brains should be inducted in TV studios to counter Opposition leaders," this minister adds. "The bureaucratic approach to political issues has put the PM into deep difficulties."
The way things have moved, it has taken away the space for healthy debate.
People who opposed Hazare for 'not respecting Parliament', or those who think that his team 'does not have the patience for the law-making process to get over' may now be branded as people who are not interested in fighting corruption.
The situation has turned so sharply that even Minister Ambika Soni expressed her support for the fight against corruption. She said, "As a Congress member, I have also been in the Opposition and I have always taken part in protest marches... I have been arrested many times in the past," she told the media.
"Parliament has seen many demonstrations, and those who don't follow the rules and regulations will be picked, then released following the conditions laid down," she added.
Seeing the current support for Hazare across India, it is clear that his defiance of the law has added to his charm.
'This is no jihad'
The government is forced to release Hazare because politically it is afraid of losing more ground. Legally too, it sees the risk of facing charges of abuse of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in the courts.
There is a clear judgment on the issue where the Supreme Court has said, 'Section 144 CrPC is an emergency provision to be used in grave situations of public disorder.'
A seven judge Supreme Court bench had ruled in Madhu Limaye versus Sub Divisional Magistrate case in 1971 that, 'The gist of action under Section 144 is the urgency of the situation and its efficacy in the likelihood of being able to prevent some harmful consequences.'
'It is not an ordinary power flowing from administration, but a power used in a judicial manner and which can stand further judicial scrutiny. As it is possible to act under the Section absolutely, and even ex-parte the emergency must be sudden, and the consequences sufficiently grave,' the judges had then ruled.
Congress party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi met Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Parliament on Tuesday. After the meeting, journalists tried to get his response, but he refused to speak about Hazare's arrest.
Rahul Gandhi had nothing to offer on Hazare's arrest, but those who preferred to speak on the government and the Congress party's behalf had only the chronology of the police action to offer.
Addressing a press conference after Hazare's arrest, Chidambaram, Soni and Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal had no convincing answers to offer for the scores of questions on why Hazare was not allowed to proceed with his fast.
Chidambaram and Sibal responded as lawyers would normally respond in court by talking repeatedly, about the 'necessity of police action' because Hazare had said 'he would defy the law.'
"How can the government allow anyone to defy the law?" the ministers asked.
Soni, more political savvy than her colleagues, did say at the end of the media interaction, "This (movement) is not as spontaneous as you think. How can he (Hazare) bring out a recorded message of his arrest even before his detention? He has been briefed. This is no jihad!"