Thursday, June 23, 2011

Civil Society must reach out to Opposition parties


Having rejected the Anna Hazare-led group’s demand for the inclusion of the Prime Minister, Ministers, Members of Parliament and bureaucrats within the proposed Lok Pal’s ambit, the central government is scrambling for political support for its stand. It has reached out to opposition parties and Chief Ministers for their opinion on the matter. This is, of course, a sham, because the feedback is immaterial, given that the government has already made up its mind. It also comes a day too late, because the UPA regime egged on by the Congress, never bothered to take the opposition into confidence all through the process – from the formation of the Lok Pal drafting panel to the committee’s various deliberations.

If the government has suddenly become conscious of the need to take the opposition leaders into confidence, it is because of two reasons: one, its version of the Lok Pal Bill cannot get through Parliament without their support, and two, it wants to diffuse the public discontent and anger over its destructive conduct across the political spectrum. It is working on the hope that the political class will cut across party lines and unite in this ‘hour of crisis’, since the civil society demands will impact them all. Whether that will happen, remains to be seen. After all, it’s not that all major political parties are in principle opposed to the Prime Minister’s inclusion; some have in fact taken positions earlier that favoured the idea. For now, the opposition is wary of the government’s overtures. The proposed all-party meet may not as quickly yield a solution as the beleaguered government wants. The June 30 deadline for finalizing the draft Bill is uncomfortably close, and the UPA is desperate.

The government on its part is playing to the political gallery in every possible way. Dripping with outward sincerity to tackle corruption in public office, the panel members from its side have been using every media forum to denounce the civil society demands as “unconstitutional” and designed to subvert our parliamentary system of democracy. Off and on they have also let it be known that, as people’s representatives they know the best. That bluff would have been easily called had a public referendum been held on the points raised by Mr Hazare and his members. The response would have been overwhelmingly in favour of getting government servants, including the Prime Minister, under the Lok Pal. That is why the government promptly dismissed one of the civil society member’s suggestion for a nationwide referendum on the issue on the ground that our Constitution did not provide for it.

Meanwhile, the Congress’ carefully orchestrated slander campaign against the ‘civil society’ leaders continues unabated. From thugs to blackmailers to pretenders to unelected despots, they have been called all. None of these epithets deserves a dignified response. Yet one must wonder what these activists have done to invite such wrath. After failing to get a response from the central government on the very valid issues raised, they decided to protest peacefully. Mr Hazare’s hunger strike struck a chord with the citizen of this country, long abused by corruption in high places. The massive support the protest received across the country indicates the mood of the nation. No political party can ignore the reality that the people want a strong Lok Pal that can reach the highest levels to probe corruption, even if that means the Prime Minister himself. It will not suffice to call the civil society activists “pretenders” and more. Incidentally, what are Mr Hazare and his representatives ‘pretending’ to be? They are not seeking to become the Prime Minister or Minister. They never claimed to be above Parliament – on more than one occasion they have asserted the supremacy of the both the Houses. Unlike some of our self-serving politicians, Mr Hazare and his men have not made a farce of our democracy while all the while pretending to be the sole representatives of the people.

With the central government and the Congress in particular exposed on the issue, what is the next course of action for Mr Hazare and his group? The Gandhian has already announced his decision to fast unto death from August 16 if the government did not incorporate the key recommendations of his group in the Lok Pal draft Bill. There is no doubt that he will receive as huge a public support as he earlier got, but the issue is no longer one of his stature. That has been settled. The larger concern is about the anti-corruption movement that he has launched. Having tested and aroused public opinion, Mr Hazare should now channelise the positive energy into creating a nationwide mass movement, if need be with the involvement of opposition parties. A forceful movement cannot be sustained without organizational support. Mr Hazare’s strength here is limited since he can only depend on his and a few other non-government organisations with closed areas of support.

A people’s movement eventually needs political support to sustain and succeed. JP’s ‘total revolution’ began as a people’s movement but it could not have been the success it became without the active participation of political parties that united against Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial regime. Mahatma Gandhi’s mass movements would not have hit the British regime hard if the then Congress and other political outfits not participated in them.

Having achieved so much, it would be tragic if the civil society activists led by Mr Hazare remain obdurate on the issue. Their decision to keep politics away from the movement made sense in the initial stages of the campaign, but at a time when the UPA is poised to sabotage the good work done by them, it would be pragmatic for them to accept any support that comes from the government’s political rivals. This should really not be such a difficult task. The activists have been, after all, engaging with politicians in the draft panel. There is no reason why it cannot collaborate with opposition leaders too to find common ground – and for the country’s larger good.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In panic mode, Govt cracks down on dissent


The gloves are off. The central government, and especially the Congress party, has launched an open assault on dissent in the country. Leaders of the civil society movement against growing corruption in public office and hoarding of black money abroad by influential Indians are being systematically targeted to shut them up. It is not Emergency yet, but the government’s recent high-handed actions – and the Congress’ vituperative statements – remind us of the blackest days of our democracy when the dictatorially-minded Indira Gandhi unleashed the state’s might to physically and psychologically intimidate the opposition. Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi seem to revel in being projected as acting “tough” against “blackmail” by “self-appointed” civil society leaders, but they would well to remember the fate their party and leader suffered in the post-Emergency election. The people cannot be suppressed for ever.

The brutal police crackdown on Baba Ramdev and hundreds of his followers in the middle of the night at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi is a good example of the growing arrogance of the central government. There was absolutely no provocation for the security personnel to burst tear gas shells, beat up the men and women who had gathered peacefully to be part of the yoga guru’s protest against black money, deport the leader out of Delhi, and declare that he could not enter the capital for the next 15 days. The blatant act was powered by the belief – promoted by hawks like Union Minister Kapil Sibal – that strong measures such as these alone could rein in the growing protests. Unfortunately for the government and the Congress, these actions tend to have just the opposite impact of strengthening the resolve of protestors and adding numbers to their rank.

Indeed, the Ramdev episode has galvanized public opinion cutting across ideological lines. Not only did political parties from the Right to the Left condemn the police action, but even civil society leaders seen as apart bonded together after the incident. Anna Hazare, who is leading the drive for an effective Lokpal Bill and who was supposedly not too enthusiastic over the manner in which the spiritual leader was conducting his campaign, came out in open support and lashed out at the government for the atrocity. He questioned the intention of the central regime, skipped a meeting on the Bill and sat on a day’s hunger strike at Rajghat. On his part, the Baba, barred from Delhi, extended his whole-hearted support to the Gandhian for the hunger strike.

While the central government’s strong-arm actions – without doubt dictated or at least endorsed by the Congress high command – are designed to frighten the dissenters into submission, it is equally true that they are a result of panic. The Congress-led government is caught in a cleft-stick. If it cracks down further, it could trigger a huge mass revolt that will be quietened only with its exit. But if the government allows the protests to grow bigger the movement could well render fruitless its plans of keeping accountability and transparency in governance to a minimum. A mind that is in desperation cannot think clearly and latches on to even the most outrageous suggestion in the vain hope of emerging out of the mess.

Of course, despite the hard-sell by the hawks most sane elements within the government and the Congress have realized that the gung-ho strategy has boomeranged. This has led to a scramble among some leaders to keep a distance from it. It goes without saying that the first to be protected should be Ms Sonia Gandhi. As the public outrage over the Baba’s violent eviction from Delhi grew, Ms Gandhi’ camp leaders let it be known to the media that Madam had not been kept entirely in the loop and that the party itself had had little to do with the eviction. Senior leaders like Anil Shastri condemned the crackdown. There is a pattern to the clarification. In the past too, whenever something went wrong, the Congress was quick to de-link Ms Gandhi with the decision, while it credited her 100 per cent for decisions that went well with the people. In the instant case, though, there is still confusion. While the party says it had nothing to do with the police action against Baba Ramdev, Mr Sibal has categorically stated that the party and the government are on the same page on the issue and that there has been complete coordination between the two on the crackdown.

Having failed to douse the protests, the Congress-led government’s dirty tricks department is working overtime to dig up dirt on the civil society leaders in a bid to discredit them. The Enforcement Directorate is reportedly investigating Baba Ramev’s business empire, with an aim to somehow nail him. Suddenly the government seems to have woken to the realization that the yoga guru could be engaged in irregularities. In a replay of the present situation, senior Congress leaders had questioned Anna Hazare’s integrity after he announced his movement for a strong Lokpal Bill. They demanded to know the source of funds for his NGO, and insinuated that he had engaged in covert financial deals. None of it was, of course, substantiated, but it was never supposed to be. The purpose was to somehow divert attention from the crucial issues raised by the civil society leader.

And, even if some of the charges finally stick, the credibility of the central government is so low today that, however much it may try it cannot redeem itself by dragging other reputations down. It promised concrete action against money hoarders but ended up cracking down on those who were demanding precisely such action. It assured to work closely with Mr Hazare’s team for the creation of a strong Lokpal Bill but is now determined to push through weak provisions that will keep nearly all of the senior functionaries in the government including the Prime Minister, out of the proposed legislation’s ambit. Enough is enough. The people cannot be fooled any more.