Regaining The Credibility
Famous American essayist Emile Capouya had once written that “Governments will always misuse the machinery of the law as far as the state of public opinion permits”. The veracity of this statement is proven once again by the way the Manmohan Singh government has eaten humble pie in its fight against civil activist Anna Hazare.
As I write this column, the Delhi Police have allowed Anna to undertake his fast in favour of his proposed Jan Lokpal Bill for 15 days with unlimited supporters in the Ramlila Maidan. In fact, the Police now say that it will make arrangements for the parking of the vehicles of Anna’s supporters! Nothing can be more humiliating for a government, which just 24 hours before did not allow Anna to assemble smoothly in the much smaller Jayprakash Park. It had imposed restrictions by limiting the presence of his supporters to below 5000 mark.
Obviously, Manmohan Singh’s team did not realise that its refusal to allow Anna to protest would invite an angry backlash from all over the country, from Kashmir to Kerala and from Daman to Arunachal Pradesh. This abject surrender, and rightly so, on the part of the government could be attributed to two possible factors. One, the intelligence agencies of the government underestimated the public resentment against corruption in the country and the resultant support for Anna as a potent symbol who is fighting corruption. This inadequacy of the intelligence agencies in gauging the public mood correctly affected adversely the government in taking a judicious decision on how to deal with Anna.
The second possibility is that the government had got the correct intelligence inputs but tended to ignore them. Available evidence suggests that this could be closer to the truth. All told, the Manmohan Singh government has time and again displayed what could be called arrogance of power. It might have thought that after all it successfully tamed Baba Ramdev only recently by ruthlessly suppressing his movement one midnight and subsequently activating its dirty-trick department, including the central investigating agencies, against him and his institutions. We all know how the Congress spokesmen and senior party leader Digvijay Singh dubbed Baba an RSS-agent and fascist. And all this followed when the Baba did not fall in the hidden traps set by the government; after all senior ministers of the Manmohan Singh government had indulged in serious talks with Baba and had resorted to every possible appeasing tactics.
The same strategy was applied to the case of Anna too. The government did set up a ministerial committee, which carried out negotiations with Anna’s team on what should be the provisions of the Lok Pal bill. It did everything possible to drive a wedge between Anna team and that of the Baba Ram Dev by bringing up the so called saffron factor. In fact, the government did succeed in this attempt as some of the Anna-team members such as Swami Agnivesh, Malika Sarabhai, Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhusan are arch enemies of the BJP and the RSS. But this success was not enough to tame Anna and his ultimate cause. Then, predictably the dirty trick department against Anna was activated—such as citing the PB Sawant Commission’s report against him, despite the subsequent action taken report by the Congress-led Maharashtra government absolving Hazare of any wrongdoing that could be punishable. One Congress spokesman, Manish Tewari, was verbally aggressive and uncivilised in criticising Anna that it must have shamed many traditional and decent Congress persons—and indeed there are few of them still in the Congress party. Predictably, Digvijay Singh displayed his saffron- phobia on the ground that one of the pictures displayed in Anna’s stage was that of “Bharat Mata” and some of his supporters were chanting “Vande Mataram”!
Notably, two senior ministers who have been common in dealing with Baba Ram Dev and Anna Hazare happen to be home minister Chidambaram, who is the ultimate boss of the Delhi Police, and Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal who, like all good lawyers, can prove black to be white and vice versa effortlessly and who believes that problems facing the country can be solved legally, not politically.
In short, the Manmohan Singh government has relied on the likes of Chidambaram, Sibal, Digvijay Singh and Manish Tewari to deal with the issue of corruption in the country. And the strategy adopted here is to first win over the crusaders of the corruption, failing which discredit and harass them by accusing them of being agents of communal, fascist and capitalist forces (one Congress spokesman has in fact demanded that Anna’s links with capitalist and imperialist United States must be looked into) and then lodging criminal cases against them. Though this strategy of blackmail apparently succeeded against Baba Ram Dev, it seems to have failed against Anna.
If one goes by the essence of the new arguments of the government, pointed out by none other than the Prime Minister in both Houses of Parliament on August 17, it is that civil society activists are not necessarily people’s representatives and that law-making is a task that exclusively belongs to the legislatures(Parliament and the State Assemblies). At first glance, such reasoning has strong merits. But under closer scrutiny, Manmohan Singh’s argument is abysmally shallow. One cannot belittle the civil rights activists just because they are not elected because those elected to the legislators also do not necessarily represent the people in totality. Thanks to the first-past-the post principle in our electoral system, legislators are often elected by 15 percent of the votes cast by 40 percent of the electorate which cares to come and exercise his or her franchise on the polling day in a given constituency. So much about the representative character of many of our MPs and MLAs!
Secondly, if the Manmohan Singh government is so much against the intrusion of the team members of Anna into the legislative business, why is it persisting with the Sonia-Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, which is literally forcing the government to adopt its proposed laws dealing with areas from employment to communal violence? The point is that you cannot have one set of principles for the civil activists with Sonia Gandhi , most of whom have become “famous” for their antipathy to anybody talking of Hindu interests in general and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in particular and another set of principles for the supporters of Anna Hazare and Baba Ram Dev.
Thirdly, as long as the hands of our MPs and MLAs are tied with party-whips to vote for things in one particular way, legislating is nothing but carrying out the dictates of the government of the day. All told, India does not have the system of “checks and balances”, seen in the United States. Members constituting the “executive” (that is the government) are first and foremost members of the “legislature”. In other words, as long as the government or the executive of the day has a numerical majority in the legislature, any proposed law by it is essentially a matter of formality as far as getting the latter’s approval is concerned. We do not have the healthy practice that one witnesses in the United States and Britain where it is not necessary that all the ruling party members support and opposition party members vote against a government-proposed legislation. In Britain, the whips are cracked only when the government faces a confidence or no confidence motion and money-bills are legislated.
In other words, will the Manmohan Singh government, or for that matter the BJP leadership, allow the MPs real freedom to discuss and vote secretly on the Lok Pal Bill? Failing that, the government, or for that matter the opposition, is not revealing the whole truth about the limitations of our legislatures in the face of the tyranny of their respective parties in making laws. In my opinion, this practice needs a change for the sake of the Indian democracy and its vibrancy.
Ultimately, then how should the Manmohan Singh government deal with the movement led by Anna Hazare? It should strive for a political consensus by involving all the political parties on the issue and then form an all-party delegation to talk to Anna. But this team should scrupulously exclude those faces in the government which so far have been dealing with the issue. There must be fresh faces from the side of the government. That is the only way to regain some credibility, all of which the government has lost badly in mishandling the movement against corruption.
By Prakash Nanda