Is someone out to silence anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare? That is one of the questions that the Sawant Commission report has thrown up, by indicting the man whose charges against the establishment led to the setting up of the inquiry.LYLA BAVADAM In Mumbai
THE ministerial bungalows near the State legislature building in Mumbai often act as an early warning system for Mantralaya watchers. Usually somnolent, they burst into life before any major political event. Small groups of party activists huddle together, while cars with district number plates block the traffic in front of the bungalows. It was no different this time. A week before the Budget session of the Maharashtra State legislature, two incidents sparked off heightened activity outside the bungalows.
The first was the resignation of Sanjay Nirupam, the vociferous Shiv Sena Member of Parliament, who alleged that the party's alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party had thwarted his fight against corruption and nepotism. Nirupam's relationship with the party had always been opportunistic - the party used him as a poster-boy to discredit accusations of being anti-North Indian, while he used the Sena for his own political career.
Coming days before the Budget session, the resignation left the Sena subdued. The party had planned to attack the Democratic Front government on a host of issues: the State's fiscal failures, the demolition of slums, the sale and development of mill lands in Mumbai, the continuance of the loss- making cotton monopoly procurement scheme, crop losses because of poor irrigation, and the arrest of four Crime Branch officers that has had a demoralising effect on the police force, according to the Sena-BJP.
But the issue that eclipsed all this was the leak of the Justice P.B. Sawant Commission of Inquiry report. It indicted Higher and Technical Education Minister Suresh Jain, Labour Minister Nawab Malik and senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Padmasinh Patil. The report exonerated Tribal Development Minister Vijaykumar Gavit. All four belong to the NCP.
Patil was accused of diverting money collected for the families of Kargil martyrs to fund a cooperative sugar factory controlled by him, diverting to the domestic market sugar meant for export, misappropriating export subsidies and evading taxes.
Jain was accused of misappropriation of funds of the Jalgaon civic body, which he controlled until recently, and of mismanagement of funds in the Jalgaon District Cooperative Bank when he was its director. Malik was accused of favouring a private builder for a Mumbai chawl. Jain and Malik resigned as Ministers after the report's contents became public.
However, the most shocking indictment was the one against the Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare. The Commission had been appointed on Hazare's initial allegations, but he too faced investigations after Suresh Jain filed counter-allegations against him.
The Sawant Commission report was a feast for the Opposition, but the government took the wind out of its sails by tabling the report in the Assembly and accepting the two Ministers' resignations.
The report is significant because in one stroke it indicted a feisty anti-corruption crusader and forced two Ministers to resign. But it has thrown up a lot of questions, too. Should the Sawant Commission have taken into consideration Suresh Jain's allegations against Hazare? Was it appropriate to judge a politician and an anti-corruption crusader on the same stand and has this confused the issue? Why have only NCP Ministers been targeted? Are politicians using Hazare?
The present charges are part of a series of allegations that Hazare has made against all major political parties in the State over the years. The first instance was in 1989 when he went on a fast to protest against irregularities in the Forest Department under the then Congress government. Five years later, he again went on a protest fast against Ministers Shobha Phadnavis and Mahadeo Shivankar of the BJP and Sena Ministers Shashikant Sutar and Babanrao Gholap.
A former Indian Administrative Service officer, Avinash Dharmadhikari, said that Hazare's eagerness to expose corruption was so well-known that politicians "fired from Anna's shoulder to solve their inter- and intra party problems". Intra-party disclosures have been the most common. It was the Sena that provided Hazare with information about its own Minister Shashikant Sutar and how he had amassed wealth disproportionate to his income. Former Minister Mahadeo Shivankar of the BJP fell from grace - to be reinstated later - because a whistleblower in the party passed word of his alleged corruption to Hazare.
But Hazare found the gun turned against himself when Suresh Jain came up with his allegations. Hazare was accused of maladministration in two public trusts he runs and also of spending Rs.20 lakhs on his birthday celebrations from the funds of his Hind Swaraj Trust.
The irony is inescapable, but there is a general impression that the report has confused issues. Dharmadhikari, who has worked with Hazare while he was in service and after, said: "You have to recognise that there is a difference between irregularities and corruption. It is plain mudslinging for Ministers to say that Anna is corrupt."
Arun Bhatia, now retired from the IAS, also thinks that Hazare's crimes pale before those of the Ministers. Bhatia has a reputation for nosing out corruption and has been investigating Hazare's finances. "All that is revealed in the report are technical offences. A missing audit is something that can be done later," he said.
But there is a more serious charge against Hazare. The report says "some of the workers of the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Janandolan Trust were abusing the platform for anti-social activities such as extortion of money and blackmailing..." For a while, there have been allegations of how some people use Hazare's name to do things that can only be called blackmail.
A former government official told Frontline that Hazare had been misusing the Right to Information Act. "His people go to government departments such as Irrigation or Buildings where there is large-scale expenditure and known corruption. Then they ask for detailed expenditure of certain projects in Anna's name. They go there as if they are intent on exposing the system but they also drop hints that if they are paid they will remain silent. Naturally, the person in charge pays them off. What is this if not blackmail?" the official said.
Dharmadhikari has heard of such cases but is sure about Hazare's honesty and does not believe that he is aware of the things that go on in his name. "No right-thinking person will believe that Anna himself is corrupt," he said.
However, Hemant Patil, a former associate of Hazare's, says that the social worker is fully aware of what is happening. Patil worked for Hazare for seven years but left the movement four years ago after "Anna became dictatorial". Since then, he said, "the 10 men who advise Anna have changed everything".
ONE grey area that probably holds many answers to the controversial report is the dynamics between Sharad Pawar, Suresh Jain and Hazare. Pawar and Hazare have been at loggerheads for over 15 years, since the time when there was a scam in the Forest Department under Pawar's chief ministership. The NCP, like other parties, has always been wary of Hazare because of his clean public image, and has refrained from challenging him. In this context, the filing of counter-charges could be read as part of a long-term plan to silence a man who, though largely of "nuisance value", has the respect of the public. The way in which Sakal, Sharad Pawar's newspaper, underplayed Hazare's indictment is curious. Dharmadhikari sees this as Pawar's way of refusing to give importance to Anna. He said that he knew of a number of reputed columnists who offered to write comment pieces on the report but were refused by Sakal. More importantly, the report indicts Pawar's own party colleagues and playing this fact up would be suicidal, especially at a time when the NCP and the Congress are again jostling for the upper hand in Maharashtra politics. Indeed, the leak of the report is seen as the Congress' doing.
Ever since the October Assembly elections when the NCP came out stronger with 71 seats against the Congress' 68, the tensions between the two parties have been palpable. In a shrewd post-election move, Pawar strengthened the NCP's position by conceding the Chief Minister's post to the Congress in exchange for more Cabinet berths, thus increasing the potential for conflict. With a Cabinet reshuffle scheduled in May, antagonisms are rising to the surface again.
Pawar may have hoped that further wrangling for positions would be a poor reflection on the Congress, but the charges against his own Ministers have dashed those hopes.
This is where the question comes in: is the Congress using Hazare? A former IAS official told Frontline that Hazare had incriminating information against Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh but had chosen only to reveal information about Ministers from the NCP. The information on Deshmukh pertains to alleged misuse of authority in land scams and the changing of laws allegedly to favour certain builders.
Many years ago, Hazare had said that he had no experience of mass movements and that his forte was education and rural development. He said that again a few days ago, adding that he would not carry out any more anti-corruption campaigns but that he would clear his name.
If that happens, the Sawant Commission's report will have unwittingly served the political purpose of silencing Hazare. The losers, as Dharmadhikari points out, will be the people.