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.

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