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Half a victory

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Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Indian politician, spea...

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VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN  IN THE FRONTLINE

Team Anna wins the first round, but the way ahead in the fight against corruption is full of uncertainties.

“A BATTLE has been won in the campaign for cleansing public life through the rallying of vast sections of people across the country. But a purposive piece of legislation has finally to be passed by Parliament even to rate this victory as truly meaningful. Indeed, the state of peace that has descended after the tumult is pregnant with uncertainties. Uncertainties of such dimensions that no one has a clue as to what this will ultimately deliver.” These words spoken by a key player in the negotiations between Team Anna and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government during the tumultuous 12-day fast undertaken by Anna Hazare, which rocked the national capital and most other parts of the country, sum up the mood prevailing among individuals and groups that would play a role in the drafting and passage of a new Lokpal Bill. The government, the big and small opposition parties with representation in Parliament, Team Anna and various other institutions and bodies that have come up with suggestions on the proposed Bill, such as the Aruna Roy-led National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and the Udit Raj-led Justice Party, all share these uncertainties and the lack of clarity about the future.

At the moment, of course, the prime mover is the Standing Committee of Parliament, chaired by Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi. The committee is expected to take up and initiate negotiations on the various proposals from different sides sometime in September itself. Central to these negotiations are the three points on which Parliament expressed its sense-of-the-House agreement in response to Team Anna’s demands. The sense-of-the-House resolution stated that the issues of “Citizens’ Charter, Lower Bureaucracy also to be under the Lokpal through appropriate mechanism, and establishment of Lokayuktas in the States” would be taken up by the Standing Committee. This process itself has historic dimensions because it is for the first time that the members of the Standing Committee will be discussing the provisions of an already introduced government Bill in response to a sense-of-the-House resolution suggesting incorporation of new provisions.

The mainstream political parties and Team Anna expect this process of the Standing Committee to be completed before the winter session of Parliament. On their part, both Union Finance Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, who emerged as the most important player on the government side during the latter stages of the anti-corruption agitation, and Anna Hazare himself have come up with public postures that have signified a sense of caution and accommodation, which in turn is considered conducive to the smooth conduct of deliberations. In repeated comments to the media after Anna Hazare concluded his fast on August 28, Mukherjee made it clear that the government had bowed before people’s power and its genuine representative leader. Anna Hazare responded by agreeing that there was a lot more to be done peacefully to take the negotiations to the level of fruition. Asserting that “this is only half a victory”, he said he was confident that Members of Parliament would not go back on their word to provide “an effective and strong Lokpal”.

While this sense of accommodation and optimism bodes well for deliberations in the future, large sections of public opinion still harbour apprehensions as to how things will unfold. Speaking to the media immediately after Anna Hazare ended his fast, Infosys founder V. Narayana Murthy hailed the ‘in principle’ agreement of Parliament to the demands put forward by Team Anna but added that it was only the first step. “We have to go through the process of implementation and take it to success. And that is the toughest part. For implementation is the Devil.”

According to Professor Nil Rattan of the Patna-based A.N. Sinha Institute of Political Studies, the apprehensions about implementation have arisen essentially on account of the very track record of the players involved in the process. “Both sides have shown intransigence at different times. While the government has bumbled about from one mistake to another for long spells while addressing the issue, Team Anna had initially taken the obstinate position that nothing short of its version, the Jan Lokpal Bill, would do. The present atmosphere for deliberations could be arrived at only because the government rectified some of its mistakes and Team Anna was ready to come down on some of its demands like bringing the higher judiciary under the ambit of the Lokpal. What is the guarantee that this will stand? Who knows whether sections of the government will embark on some adventurist path again,” Nil Rattan told Frontline.

Indeed, the UPA’s track record in handling the early days of Anna Hazare’s August agitation is pathetic. Almost every section of the government, starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, kept on making mistakes. Interventions by Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Telecommunications Minister Kapil Sibal made matters worse. Finally, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi contributed his mite to the rank confusion in the ruling establishment. These mistakes were in many ways directly proportional to the rising popularity of Anna Hazare.

Undoubtedly, the biggest mistake was the imprisonment of Anna Hazare on August 16, that too in Tihar jail, where people like Suresh Kalmadi and A. Raja, who were arrested on charges of corruption, are incarcerated. Subsequently, an official spokesperson of the Congress classified Anna Hazare as a “top to bottom” corrupt person.

Interestingly, the decision to take Anna Hazare to Tihar jail was made in an apparent effort to keep him away from the crowds. The political bosses and the administrative-bureaucratic leadership, especially of the Home Ministry, had reportedly considered different options, such as placing him in a government or private guest house or moving him out to Ralegan Siddhi (his hometown in Maharashtra), but finally decided against all these, fearing that his supporters would gather in front of the guest house or at Ralegan Siddhi. Informed sources said that they finally decided to shift him to Tihar because it was thought that the jail would not be accessible to Hazare’s supporters. But what happened was the exact opposite. Crowds gathered at Tihar in big numbers, forcing the government to order his release.

In the days following his release, and during the fast undertaken by him at the Ramlila Grounds, Anna Hazare was perceived as the symbol of all that is positive in society and in many ways the one-stop solution for all social problems. Various organisations, such as sections of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar and non-governmental organisations of different hues and patterns of funding, pitched in for crowd mobilisation. Cumulatively, the impact of genuinely inspired participation and motivated organisational mobilisation resulted in massive crowds at the maidan.

Meanwhile, the government made another faulty move: it stated that Parliament cannot give up its supremacy. This when it had undermined Parliament in April by calling Team Anna to draft the Lokpal Bill and keeping the opposition parties out of the drafting committee. While this move was made by the Prime Minister, Rahul Gandhi made a facile attempt to score some brownie points through an intervention in Parliament highlighting the same supremacy-of-Parliament position.

Ultimately, it required the intervention of some youth power from the government side itself to untangle the mess that senior politicians such as Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram and Sibal had created. It was through the good offices of a young Delhi MP, Sandeep Diskshit, that the government built channels of communication with Team Anna and managed to bring about a solution. To start with, Dikshit’s intervention was followed by an appeal from Manmohan Singh to Anna Hazare to withdraw the fast. He made this appeal even while crediting Anna Hazare with valid slogans representing the people’s aspirations.

However, in the euphoria created by this collection of crowds day after day, shrill voices questioning the very legitimacy of political processes and leaderships were heard from the Ramlila podium – from Team Anna leaders including Anna Hazare, Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal, and supporters such as the actor Om Puri. The campaign was such that it sought to raise visions of an apolitical leadership replacing politics in the country. Voices like those of the social activist Swami Agnivesh, which emphasised the need to accord validity to political leaderships and elected representatives, were fiercely criticised by the volunteers of Team Anna and by sections of the crowd. Agnivesh’s comment that Hazare ought to have responded positively to Manmohan Singh’s appeal was targeted for special vitriolic treatment by many of Team Anna’s supporters.

Despite this, the government persisted with its efforts at negotiation. It was in this process that Pranab Mukherjee’s role came to the fore, even though Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal continued to argue that a tough line would ultimately compel Team Anna to compromise. This tussle on strategy reflected in a different manner within Team Anna too. Though voices like those of Swami Agnivesh had been sidelined, there also developed an impression that Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi were pushing things to the brink. A group within Team Anna, including senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, took the lead in meeting a number of political leaders, particularly in the opposition BJP and the Left. These initiatives were supplemented by the Mukherjee-led negotiations.

Gradually, sections of Team Anna that had raised a rant against the political class as a whole had to listen to the less aggressive sections. And, it was this that finally led to the discussion of Anna’s demands in Parliament and the final passage of the resolution.

Notably, when Anna Hazare’s fast was withdrawn on August 28 following the passage of the resolution, Kejriwal made it a point to underline the fact that at no point of time had Team Anna sought to denigrate the entire political class as corrupt. While this was sought to be presented as a clarification, many observers perceived the effect of a corrective reverse pressure in this statement.

The passage of the resolution in Parliament and the acknowledgement of Anna’s agitation methods by parliamentarians have evoked high praise, especially from sections of the media, some of whom have described the agitation as the most phenomenal people’s movement to have happened in the history of independent India. In fact, some commentators have even gone to the extent of suggesting that there could be a classification of national politics as pre-Anna and post-Anna phases.

While it is true that the agitation and the fast touched an emotive chord in large sections of the people, including the middle class which has never participated actively in political initiatives, the fact remains that many other movements, ranging from the struggle for land reforms to the empowerment of Dalits, have had more lasting historical impact on Indian society.

Professor Sudhir Panwar, an Uttar Pradesh-based social activist associated with the Kisan Jagriti Manch, who supported the Anna Hazare agitation as a significant effort to initiate a new democratic discourse in the country’s political system, also pointed out that the increased participation of the middle class had helped get enhanced media attention to the movement compared with other grass-roots initiatives such as those of farmers and agricultural workers.

“The fact is the issue of corruption, especially corruption by the political class, is so pervasive and the fight against it has such widespread resonance that even those who have never thought of the country and its people in a larger sense joined in,” he said.

Panwar pointed out that the middle class, which had assiduously kept away from politics and refused to respond to phenomenal political developments such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots of 2002, was triggered into action on political and other forms of corruption also because of the global economic crisis and its impact on day-to-day life.

Panwar emphasised that the leaders of Team Anna should use this opportunity to broadbase the movement with a larger understanding of other social issues and an earnest incorporation of other social movements. “Only then will this have a lasting impact,” he stated.

Naturally, this would involve adopting a more open approach to issues such as the demands of Dalits and backward classes in relation to the Lokpal and looking at broader issues such as the impact of neoliberal policies. Team Anna has announced its resolve to continue struggles in new areas such as electoral reforms, which will include the right to recall and the right to reject legislators. It has also stated that it will strive for decentralisation of power through the greater empowerment of gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas.

A one-line overview of the national political situation in the context of the agitation and the related developments was provided by Pranab Mukherjee when he said, “We are at a crossroads.” It was with this phrase that Mukherjee began his speech marking the beginning of the August 27 debate in Parliament on the Lokpal Bill.

Clearly, as the statement implies, it is time to move with caution to enhance the democratic content of the nation and its institutions and systems. It is a message that applies equally to the largely discredited and beleaguered political class as also to the new civil society players who have had a modicum of success in initiating a corrective process.

And exactly because of this success, Team Anna needs to be extra cautious in what it preaches and practises. For, the hallucination among some of its leaders that India is Anna and Anna is India militates against the very concept of democratic discourse.

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