July 13, 2020
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The Banality Of U-Turns

The Banality Of U-Turns

Heard the one about the onion thief who is given three options to choose from as punishment: (1) Receive 100 lashes, (2) Eat 100 onions, or (3) Pay 100 gold coins? 

As the story goes, the thief decides, without thinking much, that eating the onions is the easiest option. After eating around 10 of those, he realises that he cannot eat any more, so again, without thinking it through, he gives up and announces that he would rather receive the 100 lashes. But then, after enduring some 25 of those, he breaks down, announcing that he would actually, you see, rather pay the 100 gold coins and be done with it.

And so we come to the UPA II, the onion thief raised to the power of n+1.

It clearly has exhausted not three but many more options —on not just one but many, many occasions. 

Even during its first avatar —in its first year itself, actually —it had made this proclivity well-known (remember Goa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Jagdish Tytler...?) So much so that we may well have renamed it the U-Turn Special.  

And it has failed  — or refused —to learn.

The sickeningly familiar routine has continued through the UPA's second term. 

It's the same song, same verse: Denial of a problem or refusing to admit that it could indeed be at fault, then trying to brazen it out, letting loose its dirty tricks department, blaming everybody else but itself, and then finally, having to do course-correction under duress, often under the Supreme Court's directions, but still trying to pass off necessity as virtue ('XYZ was livid at being kept uninformed',  'the inner voice spoke', 'national interest demanded...', 'ABC's honesty is above reproach'... )


We saw the same dance being performed in the case of 2G allocation, covering the entire, er, spectrum of classical mudras with regard to the various accused in the scam, starting with Andimuthu Raja through M. Kanimozhi to Dayanidhi Maran.

It was no different in the case of the appointment of the CVC, l'affaire Adarsh, or the continuing saga of the CWG and Shri Suresh Kalmadi, or Smt Sheela Dikshit who has much to thank Team Anna for taking the heat off her.

It was while reeling under the weight of unprecedented corruption charges that the govt thought it would pull off a real fast one. The demand for a Lokpal to fight corruption had been simmering for over 40 years when the govt thought it could be used as a proof of its commitment to fight corruption, and so it came out with a Lokpal Bill, 2010 

At that time, the move was touted as signalling its seriousness in fighting corruption. 

(The likes of Mr Nandan Nilekani would only be fielded much later to remind people that the Lokpal was not a panacea for corruption, or that it would entail a parallel bureaucracy, more red-tape, and indeed could result in another oligarchy...all of which may well be points worth considering, but the timing of last week made them appear so cynically calculated) 

And that is when what is now being called Team Anna decided to step in and call out the government's bluff by pointing out the flaws in its bill.

If the government were indeed serious about tackling corruption, perhaps this was the time to have an honest debate. Why, it could even have fielded the likes of Mr Nilekani to make the argument that he was presumably asked to make last week, or actually engaged the opposition in a debate. But a Goebbelsian propaganda was launched instead, and with its cheerleaders repeating it ad nauseum, much of it ended up becoming accepted wisdom. 

(Team Anna's profile was another factor, of course: there must hardly be any powerful group that has not been alienated by one or more members of this motley crew)

Let me just cite a few off-the-cuff examples of the mantras that were chanted incessantly and loudly in this campaign, so much so that the din created made it impossible to have any sane debate:

Exhibit#1: 'Parliament makes the law, civil society doesn't', 'Tyranny of the un-elected'

To state the obvious: no matter how a draft bill is put together, and no matter who contributes to it, and regardless of whether or not it is sent to a standing committee, in the end it would be Parliament and Parliament alone that would pass or defeat the Bill that comes up for vote. 

But the govt was able to raise its cacophony about 'self-appointed' 'civil society' 'interlopers' to an absurdly high pitch, drowning out even the possibility of any discussion, as if these busy-bodies were out to subvert Parliament. Er, how exactly? Because they actually wanted hard  — even if impractical — options actually discussed in Parliament?

There was no sense of irony about the PM not being elected to Lok Sabha, or indeed the NAC's role in the legislative process when the 'tyranny of the unelected' was sought to be incessantly mocked instead of actually addressing genuine points of criticism. It was astonishing to hear senior ministers argue that the right to protest a policy proposal or indeed demand a better one is contingent upon fighting and winning an election.

Exhibit#2: 'Govt Can't be Blackmailed'

Team Anna began by seeking to begin a discussion on how the Govt's Bill would be ineffective in dealing with corruption in any meaningful way.

Instead of just addressing those specific flaws and infirmities that were being pointed out, the govt spin meisters decided instead to start a campaign repeating the Mantra #1 above and added that Team Anna had no business to tell it what to do, that it was not obliged to listen to these self-appointed interlopers. 

When the govt refused to take Team Anna seriously and sought to just dismiss it out of hand, they announced a fast and protest at Jantar Mantar in April. They had a clear agenda: they wanted to demonstrate peacefully and expose what they thought was the govt's real intention: use the new Lokpal Draft as pure optics.

Again, instead of addressing the points raised, or attempting to negotiate and dialogue, brusque dismissals were employed and an incoherent chorus of chanting Ambedkar's  'grammar of anarchy' was resorted to. 

And of course there was radio silence when reminded that the powers that be seemed to have no difficulty in dealing with someone like, say, Irom Shormila, who has not just been threatening but actually been on a hunger-fast for over a decade. 

Exhibit #3: 'We tried a unique experiment in negotiating by agreeing to a Joint Drafting Committee'

Again, the first response to the announcement of the fast in April was bluster and repetition of Exhibit #1 and #2 as mantras to ward off evil spirits. When that failed, the braggadocio  gave way to yet another ill-thought through and as much of a knee-jerk cynical response as its later blunders: the announcement —by way of a govt notification, no less — of a Joint Drafting Committee (JDC).

The immediate objective in April was to get rid of the protests at Jantar Mantar because of the then impending elections in five states. But after that abject capitulation, and perhaps because in its arrogance it felt humiliated at having been hustled into announcing the JDC, the govt immediately laid bare its intentions by letting loose its dirty tricks department and starting a smear campaign against individual members in the Joint Drafting Committee.

Surely talking in good faith would have helped? But the govt was on its high-horse and thought it could show these interloping busy-bodies their place. When  smear campaigns of financial impropriety or being RSS agents etc did not seem to be working out, it was time to simultaneously introduce the next mantra. 

Exhibit #4: 'Our Way or the Highway' 

Telecast of  meetings was refused. No transcripts of meetings were issued. Audio recordings were agreed to but never made public. Delaying and dilatory tactics were employed. And all one ever heard from various party or government spokespersons was chanting of the above three mantras along now with this new fourth one: we were just told to accept that Team Anna was being very rigid and inflexible and that the govt representatives were not obliged to agree with Team Anna's proposals. Why that was so was never discussed.

Team Anna on its part kept its eyes and ears open. The first version of its draft bill had been resoundingly mocked and criticised by many, even those sympathetic to the idea of a Lokpal in principle. Instead of giving up, it had gone on to consult, edit, modify, adapt, change and improve. It also kept putting the newer versions of its evolving bills out for public scrutiny and feedback. The very fact that its bill went through so many versions is proof that Team Anna, with all its many other faults, could not be accused of being inflexible or rigid. Yet, it is no one's case that its final version is perfect. Far from it. But the simple point is that instead of Team Anna giving ultimatums to the govt, it was actually the latter which decided on an 'our way or highway' approach by unilaterally pushing forth its own version of the bill.

This after a joint drafting committee with a co-chairman had been notified.

In between, of course, we had the Ramdev fiasco. But the govt carried on arrogantly and brazenly with its smear campaigns. And once this government draft bill (GDB) was made public, the focus rightly shifted away from the JLPB to what was wrong with the GDB. Even those sympathetic to the govt, including NAC and NCPRI, were critical of the GDB which was described as a farce by most.

Far from pushing its own bill in its entirely, Team Anna in fact began by pointing out specific issues with the GDB and demanding that the government should withdraw it and move a strong bill, which need not be a replica of JLPB, instead. Team Anna pointed out and listed its objections to the GDB. Differences between the two sides were identified, tabulated and made available on websites. Detailed reasons were offered why the issues were significant enough to protest.

But once  it was pushed against a wall as it became clear that the govt would just bulldoze its bill, Team Anna's stance hardened and it resorted to bargain hard by adopting extreme positions. Even then, its moderate and nuanced voices made clear that their main objective was to get Parliament to discuss the options given by them on specific points. And clearly the parliamentarians would have the option to reject those suggestions, or to accept them with or without amending them.  The objection was in fact to sending the GDB to a Standing Committee headed by a Congress spokesperson, with such paragons of virtue as Sri Lalu Yadav and Sri Amar Singh, and yet another Congress party spokesperson who had recently plumbed the depths of public discourse while describing Mr Hazare. That the Standing Committee deliberations remain confidential and that its recommendations are not binding on the govt was another reason for Team Anna's objection.

Even then, Team Anna persisted in its efforts to play by the rules. While it had already announced its intention to start its fast-protests from August 16 much in advance, even as late as August 11 it seemed amenable to the idea of negotiations, as was apparent from this August 12 story describing its appearance before the Select Committee where it significantly  "did not broach the contentious issue of bringing the Prime Minister and judiciary under the Lokpal." As the story went on to say, "Barely a day earlier, Hazare’s close associate Swami Agnivesh had said in a television interview that they were “flexible” on this issue."  The story went on to say: "Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said: “On the contrary, [Anna Hazare] affirmed his commitment to parliamentary democracy.”"  Which is why, just two days later, it was quite a shock to encounter the same Mr Tewari executing yet another U-Turn, clearly under instructions from someone higher-up, to launch an unprecedented personalised attack on Mr Hazare. The subsequent Keystone Kops fiasco followed,  including Anna Hazare's arrest and "release" about which too much has already been said to merit any further comment.

Whichever way you look at it, some questions are inevitable: If we are willing to, rightly, employ back-channel emissaries even with Pakistan at the height of hostilities, what prevented the govt from getting off its high-horse to work out a mutually acceptable alternative? It would be instructive to know what the govt's calculations were: Did it assume that in the face of Mr Tewari's admittedly unprecedented hissy fit the entire support-base of the Anna-movement would simply melt away?

Were these its learnings from the Jantar Mantar fast?

Exhibit #5: 'There is a foreign hand'

Manish Tewari's charge of  "armchair fascists, over-ground Maoists, closet anarchists … lurking behind forces of right reaction and funded by invisible donors whose links may go back a long way abroad” was at least a familiar one, as it only echoed what many on the right have hurled at some of the Team Anna members from time to time. But it was astonishing to hear Congress spokespersons to suddenly pounce on a stray remark by a US State Department spokesperson to invoke the ghost of "the foreign hand". The sheer ridiculousness makes one despair, not just at the insult to the intelligence of the people who were sought to be so fooled but also at the intelligence of those who came up with such theories. As far as insinuations about donations etc is concerned, almost anyone who has followed the party in power knows that it would not be resorting to such innuendos and whisper campaigns if there was any concrete evidence of financial wrong-doing.

Exhibit #6: 'Backing Team Anna is backing the RSS/BJP'

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, the BJP/RSS have been cynically trying to ride piggy-back on the movement, but that is largely also because of the free-pass provided by UPA's shoddy handling and their own fear of being rendered irrelevant. If anything, the BJP was running scared, worried that the Anna movement could end up reviving the idea of a third front and fuelling the ambitions of someone like Nitish Kumar (the first CM to openly back Team Anna). Likewise, Ramdev and RSS are a different aspect of the sordid episode, with a different set of worries for the BJP.

Indeed, the BJP would not have had such a free pass had it been included in the JDC itself. Or if the govt had thought it through, negotiated hard on some of  the substantive issues and moved an otherwise strong Lokpal Bill in Parliament. The onus of finding fault with some of the contentious issues would thus have been passed on to the opposition as a whole, rather than being in the UPA's lap alone.

Instead, all the govt did was to go into an overdrive trying to discredit and smear the Anna movement from the word go by letting loose its dirty tricks department, and repeating the above as mantras.It  has continued even during the fast since August 16, with insinuations and innuendos about the movement being anti-Muslim or anti-Dalit.

Indeed, if instead of expending its energies in spreading disinformation, even as a late tactical move, if the govt had withdrawn its bill or introduced the JLPB in Parliament, the Anna movement would have completely lost its raison d'être. Not only would it have taken the heat away from the UPA, it would have forced the opposition, including BJP and others in the standing committee, to debate/oppose the JLPB's problematic provisions. It would have been a win-win either way. Team Anna would have had nothing to protest about.  BJP would have had to take a stand. The onus would not have been on the govt. If the Bill were passed, the government could take all the credit. And if it were defeated, the govt could argue that it did all that was asked of it. 

But all that the govt did was to bungle it at every single step. 

And thus we come to the latest, painful and inevitable U-turn in the form of the end-game that seems to be playing out now as the govt seems set to essentially cut a deal with the same civil society it was busy demonising till the other day. 

As Yogendra Yadav said recently: gaalii bhii khaayenge, kaam bhii karenge

The only trouble is that unlike the onion-thief, it is not just the govt which has to pay the price of its follies.

Perhaps it's only fair to ask: How much longer will we be subjected to this?



Exhibit #7: 'Any Lokpal is un-necessary', 'Who would guard the guards?', 'Why increase bureaucracy?',  'More reforms are the answer', 'Strengthen existing institutions', 'Do you know Anna Hazare in his village...?' 'This would be a bad precedent',  'Imagine what would happen in, say, Kashmir if govt gives in to blackmail' et al

These are all different debates and it would be useful to have them. The above is a very hurried bit of typing out inchoate thoughts. A whole lot more needs to be said and debated on all this — in a far more focussed way. 

Let's, however, remember that it was the govt that seemed convinced of the necessity to have a Lokpal in the first place, so it seemed rather strange for it to seek to start debates at this stage about the very idea of having a Lokpal in place.

Frankly, if the idea of introducing a Lokpal was only being done for optics, and that's the impression one gets, it would be far more honest to address the question with conviction than to go through the charade half-heartedly. But then, it is not just a question of the govt lacking credibility. The real question to ask is: Does it have any conviction?

A word also needs to be said about many of those who are now busy denouncing how badly the govt botched up the whole episode. Perhaps they need to introspect a bit as well: were they not cheering on each of its smear campaigns? Were they not in favour of  legalistic, strong-arm measures that the govt first sought to employ before giving in abjectly?  


If we are to believe that Mr Rahul Gandhi was responsible for ordering Mr Hazare's release on the night of August 16, why indeed have we not seen him descend on Ramlila Maidan to offer a public apology and start a dialogue? If the govt thinks that it has a case for not yielding to some of the demands, why not at least make that case publicly and personally, instead of launching into digressions about a non-existent Third Bill?


Where do we go from here? Pratap Bhanu Mehta had a suggestion in today's Indian Express:

All parties should declare that there will be no whips on the Lokpal issue. Any MP will be able to move any amendment, and will be encouraged to do so. Each principal amendment — should the prime minister or judiciary be or not be included — will be debated on its merits. This will have the following advantages. It will get over the absurd debate over whether one, two or three bills should be taken into account. It will force MPs to behave like consequential legislators, not rubber stamps for bills that come on from high. In an open debate, with each issue up for vote, more interesting possibilities will open up. It will test the mettle of individual MPs, create possibilities for odd coalitions across party lines, and provide for a genuinely open debate in a representative forum. There are challenges in managing this. Most importantly, a mechanism will have to be found to reconcile the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha versions. But that is not an insurmountable challenge. Some might fear that individual MPs will succumb to populism. Certainly, legislating under public frenzy is a fraught exercise. But we cannot defend Parliament and at the same time insist that we cannot trust MPs. Civil society should have no objection; if need be, it can mobilise for or against individual MPs. We don’t fully know how all this would work out. But it will have the effect of invigorating Parliament.

Do share what you think should be the way ahead.


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