Storm in a Gandhi cap

Real courage, as Atticus Finch memorably said, is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do”.

By Ashish Sharma (India)

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Published: Sat 30 Apr 2011, 9:37 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:44 AM

So it was with the audacious Anna Hazare-led agitation that eventually led to the appointment of five civil society members to the joint committee set up to draft the long-pending Lokpal Bill. Discount the righteousness of the cause, though, and much the same can be said of the Congress-led coalition government’s response to the agitation. Much the same, in fact, can be said of most politicians across parties who have sensed the ground shifting beneath their feet but have found it difficult to curb their instincts.

Even after the Manmohan Singh government buckled in the wake of swelling support to the agitation, it refused to accept the will of the people. Both the Congress president and the prime minister made the right noises expressing their resolve to combat corruption but the flurry of so-called revelations about the civil society nominees on the panel, with the Congress turning to its tried and tested ally Amar Singh for his special skills, bore the unmistakable stamp of the ruling party. The Congress party refused to resign itself to the defeat which it had brought upon itself through a series of scams and instead launched a smear campaign to discredit the civil society nominees.

Anna Hazare became a soft target when he lauded the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi for his rural development work and when he said he did not want to fight an election. The father-son duo of Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan needed something more damning and conveniently enough surfaced a CD implicating Bhushan senior in a conversation with Mulayam Singh Yadav promising the latter that his son could “manage” a judge for Rs 4 crore. Since a government lab predictably pronounced the CD as genuine while an independent lab found it doctored, demands began to gather steam that the Bhushans should withdraw from the panel pending further inquiry. “The government wants us to fall into this trap,” cautioned Arvind Kejriwal, among the brains behind the agitation and a member of the joint committee, “The government does not want tough negotiators on the panel.”

In a tradition dating back to the Mahabharat, anybody with anything to lose, including sections of the media, sided with those in power. The questions persisted. Why can’t the civil society nominees be replaced? Don’t we have other eminent lawyers in the country? The fact that the nominees comprised those who had drafted the Jan Lokpal Bill failed to silence the chorus for their ouster. As curiously did the implied assurance that with these members on board the country would be saddled with one less “high command”. Imagine Anna Hazare calling the shots from behind the panel controlled fifty per cent from the outside by the prime minister who in turn is remote controlled by the Congress president!

Congress leader Digvijay Singh even questioned the anti-graft record of the Karnataka Lokayukta Justice N. Santosh Hegde. The sequence of events suggests that this proved to be an overreach. While the Bhushans stood their ground, Justice Hegde, the best-known anti-graft practitioner in the country threatened to resign from the panel. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, the chairman of the joint committee, was forced to issue an unequivocal statement that the “controversies” would have no bearing on the working of the panel and that the government was committed to a strong Lokpal Bill to fight corruption.

By then, however, the Congress party had lost a second successive battle. Despite Sonia Gandhi’s disclaimers, few believed that the smear campaign did not have her sanction. For all their unsavouriness, the likes of Digvijay Singh are not in the business of waging personal battles. Could a government smothered in graft afford to be seen as resisting an anti-graft law just because it was so piqued? That the Congress bosses failed to grasp this simple political reality only reiterates the power of the entrenched interests that have kept the Lokpal Bill at bay for 42 long years.

© Governance Now

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