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Crusaders in the dock

Print edition : Nov 18, 2011 T+T-
Anna Hazare with Kiran Bedi (left), Congress leader and the Centre's emissary Vilasrao Deshmukh (third from right), Arvind Kejriwal (extreme right) and others at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on August 27.-R.V. MOORTHY

Anna Hazare with Kiran Bedi (left), Congress leader and the Centre's emissary Vilasrao Deshmukh (third from right), Arvind Kejriwal (extreme right) and others at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on August 27.-R.V. MOORTHY

Team Anna is beset by controversies and allegations that take the punch out of its anti-corruption campaign.

RIGHT from the first major splash that it made in April 2011 through the anti-corruption satyagraha demanding a Lokpal Bill, the movement led by the Gandhian Anna Hazare had been characterised by many seasoned observers as a half-baked socio-political engagement, lacking in a concrete ideology or even a comprehensive action plan to address the diverse concerns before the country. Though members of Team Anna, including Hazare himself, time and again sought to portray the movement as the second freedom struggle, these observers dismissed this as mere hyperbole. It was pointed out then that the core factor that imparted credence and strength to Team Anna was the ineptitude of mainstream political parties in addressing various pressing issues of the polity, particularly corruption. It was, therefore, inevitable that the absence of coherent and collective thinking ultimately weakened the movement.

Developments in Team Anna over the month of October strengthened these assessments. The team has been beset by problems ranging from allegations of corruption against its members to confused and contradictory positions on national issues and about the direction of the movement. This, in turn, reflected the wrangling within the group, which subsequently led to a couple of high-profile desertions.

The trouble started with the decision of Team Anna to campaign against the Congress in the byelections in the Hissar Lok Sabha constituency in Haryana. The active campaign carried out by Team Anna's key members, Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan, raised questions about the movement's avowedly non-political character. When it made its first major appearance in April 2011, Team Anna was perceived as being opposed to politics and politicians in general.

The disdain and distrust that members of the team expressed towards mainstream politics and politicians had strengthened this impression. Such was the vehemence with which the idea was played out at its rallies that the campaign against the Congress candidate seemed completely out of character.

This point was raised by Team Anna members such as P.V. Rajagopal of the Ekta Parishad and Rajendra Singh, a Magsaysay Award winner. Apparently, neither of them got a satisfactory answer from Kejriwal, Bhushan or Hazare himself. Consequently, the two activists chose to leave Team Anna.

This was followed by a physical assault on Prashant Bhushan, allegedly by Hindutva extremists for speaking in favour of a plebiscite in Kashmir. The response to the attack exposed another major fissure in Team Anna Hazare only mildly condemned the assault but criticised Bhushan's views on Kashmir.

The next in the line of fire was Kejriwal. A slipper was thrown at him when he was in Lucknow to address a meeting. Kejriwal also had to answer a charge from former Team Anna member Swami Agnivesh that he had transferred funds amounting to Rs.80 lakh belonging to the primary movement of the team India Against Corruption, or IAC to the account of Public Cause Research Foundation, an organisation led by him. Then came the allegation that another Team Anna member, former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Kiran Bedi, had claimed inflated travel expenses from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other institutions that invited her to seminars and meetings.

While the charges against Kejriwal could be dismissed as mere allegations by a former associate, the disclosure about Kiran Bedi was well-documented and hence most embarrassing for the team. Records showed that Kiran Bedi, who is entitled to a rebate on Air India tickets on account of her being a gallantry award winner, paid discounted fares for her air travel but charged full fare from the organisations that invited her. According to government guidelines dated February 2001, all gallantry award winners are entitled to a 75 per cent discount on economy class tickets on board Air India. Kiran Bedi was awarded the President's Medal for Gallantry in 1979. These full fare reimbursements were credited to India Vision Foundation (IVF), an NGO headed by her.

Interestingly, these inflated fare trips include those undertaken before 2007, when she was still in government service. The sponsor of one such trip to Mumbai was the Lehman brothers, who later became a major donor for IVF. Kiran Bedi was also hosted by the Dhirubhai Ambani International School in Mumbai while she was in service.

The explanations given by Team Anna in general, and Kiran Bedi and Kejriwal in particular, in relation to the charges against them have been far from convincing. Both Kiran Bedi and her chartered accountant Suresh Vyas are on record saying that the inflated bills were a form of saving done by IVF to enhance its funds. In her texted correspondence with several media organisations, Kiran Bedi argued that the allegations against her were nonsense: Did they invite me or did I get invited? And if they offered me this and I saved for a cause, so what is their problem! Was the invite conditional? Since when did saving become a crime?

Kejriwal, on his part, has been repeatedly asking Agnivesh if he has any proof that he had siphoned off funds meant for the IAC. Agnivesh responded that Kejriwal's demand for evidence is similar to the rhetoric unleashed by politicians when they face corruption charges. Kejriwal siphoned off into his private trust Rs.70-80 lakh received as public donations during Anna Hazare's 12-day fast at Ramlila Grounds, Delhi, in August. He had delayed the operating of an account in the name of IAC, despite several directions from the core committee to do so. Instead, Kejriwal saw to it that the contributions to the anti-corruption movement were received in the accounts of his private trust, Public Cause Research Foundation [PCRF]. My demand is simple. This issue should be probed like all other allegations against politicians that are under investigation now. A movement against corruption cannot have double standards, Agnivesh told Frontline.

Team Anna's line of defence is that these developments should not detract from the central goal of having the Jan Lokpal Bill passed in the next session of Parliament. There is a conspiracy behind these allegations and its aim is to scuttle the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill, said Maneesh Sisodia, another key member of Team Anna. Obviously, the team is pointing fingers at the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Campaign managers of the Congress such as general secretary Digvijaya Singh, have found the developments handy to launch sharp verbal attacks against the Team Anna leadership. Both Kiran Bedi and Kejriwal have been at the receiving end of his sarcastic statements. He has called for a probe into the allegations against the duo. Digvijaya Singh has also stated that the Hissar initiative of Team Anna clearly points to the backing it received and continues to receive from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led Sangh Parivar and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In the midst of all these external and internal problems, Team Anna is seeking ways and means to regroup and launch a face-saving initiative in order to remain relevant when the Lok Pal Bill takes concrete shape in the run-up to the winter session of Parliament. However, as things stand now, it is not clear whether this initiative will involve yet another round of aggression or a moderate compromise with the government and other challenging forces. Indications are that members of Team Anna have conflicting opinions on this crucial question too.