Sunday, December 18, 2011

Congress just doesn't get it

(First published in The Pioneer dated December 15, 2011)


Some people never wake up and smell the coffee. They live in a world of fantasy that is created by their own fallacious interpretations and misreading of situations that are stark enough for any bipartisan mind to understand. Thus, their action in response to these situations is inevitably flawed, and contributes to further complicating matters when the need is to de-escalate and reconcile. In an attempt to be too clever by half, they end up with egg on their face. This is what is happening with the Congress-led UPA as it confronts a combined Opposition over the allegation that the Government has backed out of its commitment that it had made to bring before Parliament an effective Lokpal Bill.
The Congress is primarily responsible for betraying the ‘sense of the House’ that Parliament expressed when it adopted a resolution for a strong Lokpal institution. Principal among the points in the resolution was that the entire bureaucracy would be covered under the Bill and that there would be provisions for the establishment of a citizens’ charter to address the grievances of the people who fail to get the desired services from Government departments. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Lokpal has prepared a report that excludes both these points. Of course, the report is full of dissent from members who belong to the Opposition, but more importantly, there are also a few Congress members who are said to have protested against the exclusion. The parliamentary panel headed by Congress’s Abhishek Manu Singhvi, has completely disregarded the popular sentiment expressed not just in Parliament but also within the Standing Committee. And that has led to the fresh round of agitation.
Anna Hazare’s warning of a prolonged campaign against the Government notwithstanding, the Congress this time has to also face an openly united Opposition on the issue. Prominent leaders of BJP and its allies, CPI(M) and CPI, besides others such as TDP, Samajwadi Party and BJD, shared the platform at Jantar Mantar during the anti-corruption activist’s one-day sit-in on December 11. This is the first time that Opposition leaders have come out in the open and endorsed the anti-corruption campaign. Until now, the Congress had been trying to find political cover by propagating that Mr Hazare was subverting parliamentary democracy in bypassing the political system, ridiculing politicians and seeking to impose his will on representatives elected by the people. This was an attempt by the Congress to unite the Opposition against the movement. But Mr Hazare has obviously seen through the game-plan. He invited political leaders at the December 11 event. They came, they saw and they assured the gathering that they were with him on most of the contentious issues.
The Congress’s troubles have thus manifested multiple times. And it is not just on the twin issues of including the entire bureaucracy and citizens’ charter within the Lokpal ambit. The Opposition leaders who attended the December 11 sit-in and addressed the gathering spoke in one voice in favour of bringing the Prime Minister within the Lokpal’s ambit. This is something that the Congress has strongly resisted, considering that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who presides over a Government that is steeped in corruption scandals, could be hauled up for an explanation. The Opposition leaders left no scope for ambiguity, and indicated that they were set to challenge the Congress-led Government in Parliament if the Lokpal Bill is going to be what the Standing Committee has designed it should be.
But that is not all. Party leaders who attended the December 11 event also slammed the Government for seeking to keep the Central Bureau of Investigation out of the Lokpal’s jurisdiction. As one speaker pointed out, the investigating arm of the CBI that handles allegations of corruption against Government servants should be brought under Lokpal. Other speakers too pointed to the political misuse of the investigating agency, and said it could end only after the CBI reported to an independent authority such as the Lokpal. Given the manner in which the Congress has been using the CBI to fix or bail-out political leaders – the incidents of such misuse have been reported umpteen times to need further elaboration – the demand is entirely valid.
The ever-growing resentment and opposition against it is bad news for the Congress at a time when it faces elections in various States next year. It is entirely possible that Team Anna will campaign against the Congress and its allies in the Assembly elections, complicating things for the UPA which is already faced with a resurgent Opposition. But, apart from the immediate political fallout, the Congress should worry about – if it still considers the need to worry when it should – a further loss of image. How is a party that is consistently losing credibility, going to continue leading a coalition with any amount of success?
Of course, the Congress has entirely itself to blame for the fresh round of crisis. After the resolution expressing the ‘sense of the House’ had been adopted by Parliament, the people had begun to look with optimism at the party and the Government. They had begun to appreciate the Congress’s stand that Mr Hazare cannot always keep pushing his agenda in a dictatorial manner. It then appeared that Mr Hazare’s sheen was wearing off. Had the Congress been rightly guided, it would have seized the opportunity and neutralised the activist by ensuring that its members in the parliamentary panel piloted strong provisions for the proposed legislations.
The brilliant idea of Congress members in the panel to promote Mr Rahul Gandhi’s agenda of making the Lokpal a constitutional body, has left the party more vulnerable than before. There is perhaps merit in the idea as a long-term solution. But the issue here is not one of merit, but of intention. The point of making the Lokpal a constitutional body has never been a matter of debate. Where then was the need to introduce the subject when there are so many other unresolved points that need to be sorted out? It was a calculated move by the Congress to deflect people’s attention from the desire to have a Lokpal Bill in the form the people of the country want. That cunning strategy has, unfortunately for the Congress, boomeranged, with Mr Gandhi himself under direct attack from the anti-corruption activist for trying to derail the process to have an effective Lokpal Bill passed in the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament.
Not having learned any lessons in its past dealings with the anti-corruption movement, and showing absolutely no indication of doing so this time as well, the Congress is doomed to ignominy in the coming days. No amount of effort by its spin doctors, both within the party and in the media, is going to restore the credibility that it has been losing in huge lumps with consistent regularity. It can still redeem the situation by accepting the Opposition demands to include the Prime Minister and the lower bureaucracy in the Lokpal’s ambit, and free the Central Bureau of Investigation from political control. Will it?

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