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At a crossroads

Published : Jan 27, 2012 00:00 IST


ANNA HAZARE IN a Pune hospital on January 1. The campaign against corruption will lose its sheen without Anna's leadership.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

ANNA HAZARE IN a Pune hospital on January 1. The campaign against corruption will lose its sheen without Anna's leadership.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A more inclusive membership and a redrawing of priorities for implementation on the anti-corruption plank could help sustain the Team Anna movement.

MANY friends quiz me on the future of the anti-corruption movement in the country and specifically whether the Anna Hazare movement will be able to sustain itself. All this in the context of the fiasco in the Rajya Sabha on that momentous night, for which parties on both sides in the House were possibly to blame. The hint of a controversy over the role of its Chairman, Hamid Ansari, was perhaps wholly avoidable because conjectures on his motive and neutrality could damage a well-oiled system.

I want to steer clear of the politics that has come to envelop the whole question of how to keep up the momentum of the movement to make public life in India less corrupt than it is now. I believe it is the utmost responsibility of the aam admi to prevent any hijacking of the process by dubious elements. There are many who would want to stall the enactment of a law that gives muscle to the state in the fight against venality.

Despite all his failings, Anna Hazare is a welcome phenomenon. Those who dissect his persona are being mischievous and tendentious. Like most of us, he also has frailties normally associated with humans. I salute him for his courage, if not for anything else. He has unmistakably aroused the common man and made him understand that the opportunity to cleanse governance was never closer. It is this undeniable popular awareness that affords some optimism for the immediate future. To describe Anna as an urban middle class infatuation is grievous. And to jeer at all those who even remotely endorse Anna is even more obnoxious.

Recently, I ran into a young, articulate and ambitious politician whom I have known for a long time. He made a few unprovoked and acerbic comments on the integrity of those who were around Anna or were positive about him. His point was that those who lived in glass houses should not throw stones at others. He was undoubtedly reflecting the views of many who just cannot stand Anna Hazare and the crowd around him. I was immediately reminded of McCarthyism in the United States during the height of the Cold War and the days immediately prior to that. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who was going strong at that time, was a firm believer of the dictum: If you're not for us, you are against us.

The objective American felt utterly uncomfortable with this myopic vision. This is exactly the feeling of unease that I get just now in our country. The concerted attempt to malign or deride those who want an upright system that will protect the honest citizen and swiftly penalise the misbehaving and greedy public servant has to be condemned. It is true that a few around Anna Hazare went overboard in the initial days of euphoria with needlessly vitriolic outbursts. I get signals that they have realised their mistake and are now trying to mend their ways by keeping a low profile and through more subdued language. This is a costly distraction from the sacred task of enhancing the levels of integrity in governance. We somehow have to see that no citizen pays a bribe to get a birth certificate, ration card, driving licence, train ticket or a passport within a prescribed period of time. This is the irreducible minimum of citizen entitlements, on which there can be no compromise.

The Prime Minister and his colleagues have made it clear that the Lokpal Bill will be reintroduced in the Rajya Sabha in the Budget session. I have no reason to disbelieve them. At the same time, they could be making virtue out of a necessity. We have reached a stage where an ombudsman call it by whatever name is a national necessity because of the unbridled corruption that is sweeping across the country and popular expectations that the government will have to institutionalise the war against corruption.

Any government that hints even remotely that this is a pointless exercise will pay a huge price in terms of electoral support. Having said this, I wonder how far our lawmakers will go to bring about a credible ombudsman. They should realise that the common man is so clued-up that he will not settle for a weak Lokpal. He may not express his dissent collectively by taking to the streets. He will, however, demonstrate his disapproval when he exercises his franchise. This is a risk that no party would like to take. A fractured verdict flowing from discontent with all political formations will also be most unwelcome to parties across the spectrum and to the common man, who is fed up with the antics and misdeeds of partners in a coalition. This is where lies the wisdom of constructing an effective Lokpal that will stand the test of time.


How strong should a Lokpal be? I am opposed to bringing the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) under it because I believe that an autonomous and well-tested CBI is required to fix corruption in high places. It just cannot be an appendage of the Lokpal or the Executive (read the PMO). There is too much at stake for the present and future governments in granting freedom to the CBI of the kind that I and several others have been pleading for. When this is the political reality, it would be unrealistic for Team Anna to stick to its demand that the CBI should be brought under the Lokpal's purview. The viable alternative would be a small investigative wing attached to the Lokpal, which can do a preliminary inquiry into major charges of corruption. Where the charges are credible in the Lokpal's view after this inquiry, and a regular CBI investigation is merited, the findings of such preliminary inquiry could be passed on to the CBI for appropriate action under the law.

Thereafter, the Lokpal will have no authority except to receive a report from the CBI on the action taken on the Lokpal's findings. This may not, however, be acceptable to Anna Hazare. If the point is overemphasised, many will doubt the motive behind Team Anna's demand for control over the CBI.

A more contentious matter is the clubbing of a demand for a strong anti-corruption mechanism in the States with other demands. It is common knowledge that the problem of misuse of government funds by public servants is unmitigated at the State level. The anti-corruption directorate in many States is a joke. It shares the many infirmities of the CBI without, however, the latter's reach and professionalism. This is why a Lokayukta with its own investigation wing is an absolute necessity in the States. There is at present no national statute on the subject. The few States that have this apparatus owe it to the recommendations of the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC).

Naturally, very few States have chosen to set up a Lokayukta. I am told that the Karnataka set-up, even before the former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa's arrest, was more than a force to reckon with. A Central law on the subject is being opposed by many States for obvious reasons. However, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has decided in favour of a strong Lokayukta in his State. This is most welcome. It squares with the image that he has so assiduously built for himself in the past few years. I do not think that any other Chief Minister will dare to emulate him, at least in the near future.

What is Team Anna's future? Anna is recovering from a chest infection and is resting at his native place. Given his willpower and motivation, he should be back on his feet very soon. It will be a setback to the whole movement if he is not. It is easy to take the position that no campaign for a public cause can remain personality oriented. The reality, however, is that the group will lose its sheen without Anna's leadership. Many of his detractors are banking on this. Let us hope he disappoints them. But the greatest obstacle to the team is a near consensus among political parties that a strong Lokpal cannot coexist with a democracy, where Parliament and the State legislatures are supreme. I do not foresee any radical shift from this position. This is why I am convinced that Team Anna will have to stoop to conquer. It just cannot afford to break its dialogue with the Central government, however distasteful this might be. It cannot also take the issue just now to the streets.

The poor response that it evoked in Mumbai recently cannot be ignored. This is, however, no reason to abandon the fight. It is a signal that Team Anna's strategy bears modification. A more inclusive membership and a redrawing of priorities for immediate implementation on the anti-corruption plank, both at the Centre and in the States, could help sustain the movement.

Jumping into the electoral fray to work against one or the other party that refuses to endorse Anna would be fatal. It would only bring further odium to the team and give more ammunition to those who are determined to dilute the fight against dishonesty. I am sure there are enough sane elements in the vicinity of Anna who would counsel him on this. Or else the Anna phenomenon could soon be just a memory. I do not see anybody around us now who can shape into another gutsy fighter like Anna.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 27, 2012.)



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