A Gandhian battle

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

The latest campaign by Anna Hazare ends with some gains and a few losses, but the question is whether it will have an impact on the forthcoming State Assembly elections.

ANNA HAZARE's battles are fought on two fronts. One is clearly the political front, where he strikes out at specific politicians, accusing them of graft. On the other, he targets the administration and the system itself, to correct which he calls for changes in the law. The 65-year-old Gandhian social reformer believes that this is the formula for success.

Realistically speaking, his campaigns cannot be termed successful since his demands are met by the government invariably after they are watered down. However, there is no denying the impact of his campaign on the public. The fast, which he began on Martyr's Day on August 9 at Mumbai's Azad Maidan, ended nine days later. The reaction of the people, by and large, to the campaign was one of admiration and support. Indeed, an e-mail message sent out by a group of supporters of Hazare called for individuals to fast for one day in symbolic support of him.

Considering the impact it can have on voters, especially in the pre-election months, Hazare's latest campaign is seen as a political battle specifically targeting Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (all the accused Ministers belong to the NCP). His earlier, widely publicised, campaign in 1997 against corrupt Ministers seriously damaged the Shiv Sena-BJP government's electoral prospects. The crusader's recent fast seems to be a replay of the same strategy. Elections are due in Maharashtra early next year, but there is a possibility that they may be held earlier.

Hazare had undertaken a tour of the State earlier this year in an attempt to mobilise public opinion on the issue of corruption. The campaign received little attention primarily because it was too general in nature. This probably is what prompted him to make focussed demands. He demanded that the Right to Information Act be implemented in Maharashtra immediately since it was passed as a Bill by both Houses of the State Legislature. He demanded absolute powers for the gram sabhas as enunciated in the 73rd Constitution Amendment. Recognising the power that Ministers wield over crusading government officers, Hazare demanded that no officer should be transferred from a post in less than three years and no one should remain in the same post for more than three years. Exceptions to the rule must be recorded in writing he asserted. He also demanded a time-bound framework to clear files.

THE most sensational of Hazare's accusations were levelled against Suresh Jain, Vijay Kumar Gavit, Dr. Padmasinh Patil and Nawab Malik. All were accused of corruption of serious nature. Suresh Jain, Minister for Food and Civil Supplies, retaliated by staging a counter-fast demanding that Hazare be investigated for misuse of funds of a trust run by the Gandhian.

Unlike 1997, when Hazare threw the Shiv Sena-BJP government into turmoil, Sushilkumar Shinde's government chose a hard-line approach. A bureaucrat in Mantralaya, the State Secretariat, who was sympathetic to Hazare's campaign, said, "His demands are perfectly justifiable. We do need a lot of cleaning up. But this can only be done if there is substance in the accusations. Even the man on the street knows there is corruption. What is required is documented proof. Anna hasn't got it. His heart is in the right place but his approach is wrong." The bureaucrat also believes that Hazare's flamboyance ultimately gave the government the upper hand in the negotiations. "The government initially soft-pedalled the whole issue. No one rushed to ask him what his demands were. He was handled in much the same manner that one handles a child throwing a tantrum. He started his fast saying none of his demands were negotiable, but look at the final outcome."

When Hazare ended his fast, the tally of gains and losses revealed the compromises. The government has, in principle, agreed to all his demands relating to administration. However, the ifs and buts make it clear that the promises have loopholes. A single-member (instead of three) judicial panel will probe the accusations against the Ministers.

Suresh Jain's fast was `rewarded' with the government granting an investigation into the corruption charges against Hazare. True to his style, the Gandhian crusader welcomed the inquiry against himself. However, Jain has damaged his own reputation by initiating action against a man of Hazare's integrity. Hazare's demand for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry has been rejected by the government. His initial insistence on this even resulted in Governor Mohammed Fazal sharply remarking: "There is a process of law. If Mr. Hazare does not care to believe in a judicial inquiry, we will have to alter the Constitution."

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