People Vs Parliament
- The government showed no intention of considering the recommendations of civil society on the Lokpal bill till Anna Hazare’s agitation
- In reiterating Parliament’s supremacy, the all-party meet convened by the PM was dismissive of people’s expectations of MPs
- The language used by Congress and UPA mocked at people’s outrage at corruption
- The vagueness of the BJP on the bill, while it exulted in the UPA’s discomfiture, reinforced people’s growing cynicism about politicans
- The Anna team’s inflexibility fed the government’s distrust of civil society
“Who will bell the cat?” The scepticism in senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan’s question was perhaps tinged with a little hope as Anna Hazare’s fast entered the ninth day on August 24. After all, as co-author of the Jan Lokpal Bill and one of the prime movers of India Against Corruption, Prashant and his colleagues had succeeded in bringing people out on the streets, redefining democracy the way people understood it, daring the government to adopt and pass their version of a watchdog bill against corruption in Parliament. But getting the aging and adamant Anna to agree to give up the fast, on the tenth day, after the government willy-nilly conceded their demands, albeit one step at a time, was a task left to Union minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. There were to be a few twists in the tail, though, especially after members of Anna Hazare’s team met BJP patriarch L.K. Advani at his residence after that.
But the headline events were happening elsewhere, as it were. At Ramlila Maidan itself, every participant in the agitation—they ran into the tens of thousands—perceived him/herself a stakeholder. For them, more fundamental questions of democracy were being settled. Would their rights come into effect only once in five years, through the process of voting, or could they exercise them more directly and continuously? The UPA government’s actions had all proceeded in the opposite direction, a timid conservatism in the face of crisis. That had been proved by the weak and ineffectual Lokpal bill it had placed in Parliament. But the whole sequence of events after Anna Hazare’s arrest on August 16—which set off unprecedented scenes of protest in Delhi and beyond—left the government bereft of any moral ground and had it clutching at straws. The groundswell of popular sentiment thereafter meant that only so many options were open—and all of them spelt surrender. The political establishment went through its motions: Congress core group meetings, an all-party meeting, signs of politicians closing ranks. It was perhaps lost on no one that while a week is indeed a long time in politics, between April and August, time had run out for the government.
On the tenth day of Anna’s fast, the wheel turned in the people’s favour: the UPA government agreed to table three bills, including the Jan Lokpal bill backed by Anna, in Parliament on August 26. It had taken a small, Gandhi-topi-wearing crusader from Ralegan Siddhi, Maharashtra, to get the government to agree to most of the demands of the India Against Corruption campaign. His fast, and the spontaneous expression of support from lakhs of people, certainly helped.
Before that happened, however, a government humbled and mauled in turn had hurriedly tried to regain some ground. Gone were the Kapil Sibals, Manish Tewaris and P. Chidambarams, who briefly vented their bile against the movement and without reservations cussedly reviled an old man. But the backlash of public opinion saw them retreating into the shadows. Later, Tewari even apologised for his personal attack on Anna. When Anna finally agreed to end his fast, it was through the offices of Deshmukh, a former chief minister of Maharastra who had dealt with Anna before, and in Marathi at that. He managed to reassure Anna that he’d obtain a written resolution from the government on tabling the Jan Lokpal bill in Parliament on August 26, Friday, and requested him to end his fast by August 25 midnight. Deshmukh is learnt to have told Anna no leader from Maharashtra had achieved as much as he had through his fast and that it was time to break the fast and talk.
“I have three demands. If there’s support from the government for them, I will consider ending the fast,” Anna told the crowds after speaking to Deshmukh. These were: inclusion of the bureaucracy from top to bottom under the Lokpal, watchdog bodies for all states, and a citizens’ charter. Sensing Anna’s willingness to a possible solution, Deshmukh had gone back to Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s office to draft a letter to be submitted to Anna. Further discussions were held at the house of Union minister of state for telecom Murli Deora. Finally, after 14 meetings between representatives of Anna’s team and that of the Congress, the impasse was resolved—a process set in motion with the prime minister, the leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha and the Speaker appealing to Anna to give up his fast. Before that, however, both sides had taken unnegotiable positions. While Anna had gone on a fast, Prashant, a Supreme Court advocate who single-handedly moved the courts against the scams that have rocked the UPA in recent times, Arvind Kejriwal, a Magsaysay awardee and RTI activist, and Kiran Bedi, former police officer celebre, had put their foot down that their version of the bill alone would go to Parliament. Their unbending stance, the overarching and draconian structure the Jan Lokpal bill envisaged and their all-or-nothing position had gotten intellectuals, media observers and academicians wary of what they saw as fascist tendencies in the proposals.
Anna’s team now put it out that if they had appeared stubborn and unwilling to engage in dialogue even as the government ceded ground clause by clause, it was because you have to seek the moon for crumbs to come your way. Queering the pitch is always a better bet than keeping quiet. Also, the UPA’s mishandling of the issue, its going back on the promise of introducing a co-drafted bill in Parliament, had been hard for the group to stomach.
Perhaps that’s why Anna’s team was adamant on not only claiming ownership of the Jan Lokpal bill (the government wanted it tabled as the Lokpal bill) but also sought a definite date for its introduction in Parliament. As a government source said, two and a half issues remained to resolved, implying that while the “half issue”—putting up a public charter of governance delivery—could be sorted out easily, the other two required intense deliberations. These are the inclusion of the lower bureacucracy (with an unwieldy count of more than 45 lakh employees) under the Lokpal and the simultaneous creation of Lokayuktas (state-level watchdogs) in all states. On the first, the government said it had already set Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh and nac member Aruna Roy the task of creating such a mechanism, for patwaris and talatis were the first bureaucratic cog people at the village level had to encounter. A bill has been readied for this. The second, the government said, could intrude on our federal structure; it was up to the states to do that. Anna’s team has agreed to the setting up of a committee to look at these matters, though its composition will surely be contentious.
It is in this backdrop of distrust that one needs to look at how this people’s battle was fought. On August 16, as the day broke on a 65-year-old nation, an arrogant government whisked away the 74-year-old Anna to Tihar jail before he could begin his fast unto death. This invited such an upsurge of rage against the government that even the campaigners were surprised. Kejriwal admitted they hadn’t anticipated such a groundswell. The crowds stayed on. But it wasn’t before eight days into the fast that negotiations actually began.
The government sent Bhaiyu Maharaja, Anna’s spiritual friend, and U.C. Sarangi, a Maharashtra-cadre bureaucrat, to negotiate. They were closeted with Sibal to draw up strategies, but this could not break the ice with the agitators. Sibal, with his earlier statements, had in any case lost even before he began. Then, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a guru, stepped in. But the fasting Anna, with a clenched fist, chose to exhort the crowds around him to fight it out, demonstrate peacefully in front of MPs’ houses. They readily did as told. The movement turned against politicians as a class and people said Anna’s bill was what they wanted—no questions.
On the eighth day of Anna’s fast, Delhi MP Sandeep Dikshit and Pavan Khera, an aide of Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, stepped in, presumably because of their NGO background and because they’ve worked with Kejriwal in the past. Then Union law minister Salman Khurshid joined in. Three meetings and innumerable phone calls later, it was agreed that a mutually agreeable draft would be prepared. The stage was set for a meeting with Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee after he got the mandate from the PMO. By now, the government had not only accepted the inclusion of the prime minister under the Lokpal (a matter that had caused the parting of ways in April between Anna’s team and the government), but also the inclusion of the CBI, which functions under the prime minister. Civil society members returned the gesture by accepting the non-inclusion of the judiciary. All that remained was three issues—or two and a half, as government sources insisted.
The whole process, in many ways, was also a learning process for those leading the agitation. If, on the first day into the fast, the war cry of ‘Vande Mataram’ was heard frequently, in the following days, it faded away. People who turned out with personal complaints began to lend a sympathetic ear to those displaced by progress and to larger issues. And importantly, religious beliefs seemed to have been given a temporary burial at Ramlila grounds. Veteran anti-dam activist Medha Patkar spoke about the cosy equation between corporates and the government, with the people left nowhere. Though her struggle against the Narmada dam, Medha said, had the people’s support, they hadn’t filled up the streets as they did for Anna.
Over the period of a week, the discourse turned to farmers’ rights, land acquisition laws and environment as the ire quickly turned against Parliament (read parliamentarians). The demand that the bill be quickly introduced and passed grew shriller by the day. At least some MPs, meanwhile, got estranged from their parties as they saw the tide rising against them. Collectively, the Congress kept quiet, but there were rumblings. In the BJP, discordant notes were struck by Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh. Some RJD members too supported Anna, despite the party line being in support of the UPA.
Finally, the government agreed to move a resolution in Parliament on August 26 for a discussion on the Lokpal bill (name yet to be finalised as we go to print). The exact form it takes will be hammered out with Anna’s team. Along with this, a critique from Aruna Roy’s NCPRI and another version proposed by Jayaprakash Narayan, an activist, will also be discussed. Meanwhile, the activists, even as the government was preparing a letter to Anna, went and met L.K. Advani and other senior BJP leaders at Advani’s house, ruffling feathers in the Congress and the government. But the UPA is unlikely to queer the pitch on discussions because of this—it stands to lose too much.
In many ways, this struggle has also thrown the doors open for other rights groups to be heard. In turning to Parliament for a final nod, people too have reposed faith in it. It is now for the MPs to not betray their trust. Finally, as the campaign wound towards an end, the prime minister, often praised as a man tall on integrity, appeared a little more than diminished. A small man with a clenched fist had dwarfed him.