During a recent meeting in Ralegan Siddhi, Anna Hazare’s team decided to renew its fight for probity in public life. One could say it is also time to judge the impact of his campaign on the system, asking some relevant questions. Has the first, “successful” phase of the movement really touched the collective conscience of ‘civil society’ and affected the attitude of the ruling establishment towards corruption? Or is its influence superficial?
Stripped of hyperbole, the real achievements of the movement are modest. Nothing has changed for the better on the ground. Our venal rulers continue on their course, smug as ever. Otherwise, the two whistle-blowers, Faggan Singh Kulaste and Mahavir Singh Bhagora, former Lok Sabha MPs (both of the BJP), would not be behind bars for exposing the cash-for-votes scam of July 2008, and their third comrade, Ashok Argal, would not be facing arrest.
The establishment’s vindictiveness is blatant of course, but on predictable lines. What is really shocking is the deafening silence on the part of civil society. Is a meaningful crusade for clean public life possible without standing by those who resist temptation and dare pull the plug on graft at the highest level? These three honourable men had done just that.
Actually, the anti-graft crusade started in the lead-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, with BJP leader L.K. Advani constituting a task force to go into the issue of corruption at the top and Indian black money stashed abroad. The task force’s analysis hit the nail on the head: the virus begins with people at the top bartering favours at the expense of the exchequer in order to enrich either themselves, their kin, or organisations they or their kin have links with. One recalls the pledge Advani took not to hold any office till investigations into the hawala diary case did not clear his name. He rejoined Parliament only after he was proved innocent in the courts. It is from this that he derives the initiative and moral strength to take up the fight against corruption.
With so-called civil society idealistically setting its eyes on fighting an abstraction—future corruption—the reality of the cash-for-votes scam goes almost unnoticed.
Approached by dalals of the beleaguered Manmohan regime and the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress at the fag end of the previous Lok Sabha term, when the UPA-I government was facing a trust motion on the nuclear deal, the three MPs promptly informed the BJP high command. They had the option of accepting crores in silence, but did not. Instead, as advised, they decided to expose the sordid drama through a sting operation, with the help of a TV channel. The TV channel let them down and they were left with no option but to bring the cash to the Lok Sabha, display it, and expose the sleazy game in front of the entire country. In any other civilised society, such men would have been hailed as heroes and honoured while those who tried to bribe them would have got their just deserts.
It is just the reverse here. The arrest of Amar Singh in the case is part of a cover-up operation. He was but a mercenary, doing a dirty job at the bidding of those who were the ultimate beneficiaries of this murky enterprise. Obviously, the cash did not belong to him. The investigating agency, the Delhi police, has neither tried to trace the origin of the cash nor brought to book the faceless persons who had written the script and directed this squalid drama. The theatre of the absurd is complete. The Delhi police has spared the faceless crooks and put the fearless crusaders behind bars. The message is clear: Say ‘no’ to temptation offered by the Congress and, to be sure, you’ll be damned.
The shameful event and its aftermath is full of ironies. The rulers, swearing by the sanctity and supremacy of Parliament while dealing with Anna’s team, have subverted that very institution. And Anna’s team, which had received nationwide support in its fight against corruption and the corrupt, has been indifferent to this issue, staring at us in the here and now. Why is that? Because the three heroes of this ignoble saga belong to the much-abused and demonised tribe of politicians. They resisted and exposed graft and are paying for it. So shouldn’t ‘civil society’ have rushed to help them?
In fact, the silence of ‘civil society’ on this stormy issue has to be seen in the backdrop of events leading up to the conclusion of Anna’s fast. There is little doubt that those who manipulate the system to fatten themselves are indeed cunning and ingenious. Otherwise, the recent anti-corruption crusade would not have ended with the issue being reduced to whose Lokpal bill should be the template for action.
The scamsters who are now facing trial in the 2G case are claiming that whatever they did has had the written or tacit approval of the prime minister and the then finance minister and that the two should therefore be summoned as witnesses. There was a report the other day that a SEBI board member has revealed that the current finance minister was trying to influence SEBI in cases involving some leading corporates. Surely, this indicates it is the Congress that is the fountainhead of corruption—more so than officials or bureaucrats at any level. Therefore, the focus of the debate on corruption must be on the Centre.
With 24x7 TV channels focusing on the swelling support for Anna’s team and the countrywide concern for the fasting crusader, UPA-II was able first to delineate the minimal demands of the team for the fast to be called off. The campaigners settled on three points, and the entire debate was turned around: instead of fixing the spotlight on those whose corruption was writ on every wall in Delhi, it was directed against an abstraction—corruption in the future. When it is evident who is corrupt now, at the political level, is it not a bit ridiculous to debate a future Lokpal to look at future corruption and the jurisdiction that body should have?
The focus of the fight against corruption should be on UPA-II. After all, some of the accused in the 2G scam have even said that spectrum sales had the tacit approval of the PM.
As the concern for Anna’s health rose across the country, the debate was becoming one of ‘civil society’ versus Parliament. In effect, the contention was reduced to a question of semantics. And finally when it all ended, with the whole Parliament thumping the desks and adopting the joint resolution by this demonstration of support, the Congress must have breathed a sigh of relief. The spotlight on the corrupt had been switched off—even if that was only for the time being—and the entire focus was on restraining countrywide corruption in the future; a parliamentary committee was to design the tools for doing that. In this manner, the Congress was able to lead by the nose the debate on black money and corruption.
For the next three months, the country may watch with bated breath how this standing committee, headed by a Congressman, tackles the several proposed versions of the Lokpal bill and arrives at one acceptable to all stakeholders. Meanwhile, the prime minister, who is said to have approved with his silence the handing of 2G licences to the undeserving, may relax. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit, exposed by the Shunglu committee and the CAG report on the CWG contracts—the money spent by her government was ten times what the committee headed by Suresh Kalmadi spent—can also take it easy.
So where does the battle against graft and exposing and punishing the corrupt stand at this juncture? No doubt, the stature of Anna and his team has gone up several notches in the public mind. People at large have a sense of victory over the system. Public awareness on corruption and the need to fight it is high. Especially in the middle class. In real terms, however, despite Anna’s campaign, there’s little to show on the ground. The original goal of bringing back Indian monies stashed abroad seems to have been completely forgotten. While the focus is on corruption in generic terms, the most visibly corrupt faces continue to be safe in their positions of power. They continue to manipulate the system to save the guilty and target innocents. An unscrupulous and a ruthless establishment continues to persecute, slander and vilify those who dared to raise their voice against its venality and frauds.
In its second phase, Anna has decided to focus on the long-pending issue of electoral reforms and performance audit of MPs. These are not metaphysical and abstract issues. They have germinated in the given framework of Indian politics. Can there be any meaningful movement on such issues divorced from the given context? Will Phase 2 of the movement also end in a sense of victory but without any tangible achievements to its credit?
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)