DURING the Indo-Pak war in 1965, a jeep carrying 10 defence personnel was strafed by enemy planes. The sole survivor, Kisan Baburao Hazare, returned to his village pledging to serve society in his second lease of life. Twenty-one years down the line, the jeep’s driver has seized the moral initiative and brought Maharashtra’s political establishment to its knees—no doubt on account of his image as a patriot and committed social worker. "I do not fear death as I died long ago," says Anna Hazare, referring to his no-solid-food fast that had the entire Maharashtra government almost eating out of his hands. He was demanding the removal of two state ministers—Shashikant Sutar, minister for agriculture, and Mahadeo Shivankar, minister for irrigation—he claimed were corrupt.
Hazare already seems to have won half the battle with the two ministers having been divested of their portfolios. Their resignations have been accepted by the chief minister, who has said that he will not forward them to the governor till the one-man committee probing allegations against them submits its report. "This andolan will not end with the removal of Sutar and Shivankar," Hazare avers for his part. "It will continue." Currently confined to his temple residence at Ralegaon Siddhi, in Ahmednagar district, Hazare would have been just one more member of a three-member corruption detection committee (another being Bal Thackeray himself) set up by the Maharashtra government to probe corruption charges against ministers. The committee, a tactical move by Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, was aimed at pacifying the crusader in Hazare, who had levelled serious corruption charges against two senior ministers of the state cabinet.
Joshi’s well-laid out gameplan would have succeeded but for a stray remark by Revenue Minister Narayan Rane, who one fine day questioned Hazare’s propriety to level charges against ministers. And a perturbed Thackeray asked Hazare to first clean his own backyard, referring to his model village project at Ralegaon Siddhi. An agitated Hazare volunteered a probe into his assets but was quick to demand the same against Thackeray, targeting his real estate investments. "Let anybody investigate our assets. But then there should be an investigation into the assets of everyone making these allegations," said Uddhav Thackeray, son of the Sena supremo. "Allegations become excuses when there is no proof."
But the Sena had not reckoned with Hazare’s public image as someone willing to lay down his life for the country, which has only been enhanced by his reputation as a social worker, which won him the Magasaysay award. So, his clarion call against corruption in high places had received support from former deputy municipal commissioner G.R. Khairnar, former Congress MLA Chandrasekhar Prabhu, bureaucrat-turned-social worker Avinash Dharmadhikari, citizens and lawyers groups and rival politicians. A one-member fact-finding committee comprising Justice S.W. Puranik has been appointed, but not everyone is satisfied. "The ministers will be in the clear as documentary evidence will not be enough to indicate that corrupt practices were employed," opines Khairnar.
The Congress has been eagerly following the proceedings in an attempt to gain political mileage. "It is not a question of benefiting the Congress," says MPCC President Sushil Kumar Shinde. "Something fishy is going on in this government, which forced the two ministers to resign. It also shows that the confidence of the people in this government has been shattered."
In the 10 days since Hazare launched his campaign, the CPI(M), the Janata Dal, the Republican Party of India (RPI) and a host ofsmaller organisations have expressed their willingness to hitch their political wagon to that of Hazare’s. Hazare promised to open his arms though with a categoric condition: "Walk in without your political flags."
Though the Congress—represented by Govindrao Adik, Madhukar Pichad and Ramdas Athavale—was among the first to pledge its support, others leapt into the fray as deftly, with the RSS and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) providing the surprise element. In spite of BJP General Secretary Pramod Mahajan’s statement to the contrary, ABVP President Shekhar Chandratre confirmed: "We are with Hazare and his movement against corruption and we stand by any action he proposes to take. This is because we believe there must be some credence to the allegations he has made." The series of demonstrations held by the Parishad’s workers and students in front of the collectorate at the district level has not eased the situation further.
And for the second time in almost four months, it is jubilation time among the otherwise demoralised Congress rank and file. The last time they had smelled blood was when Sheila Kini had walked into Congress leader Chhagan Bhujbal’s house, seeking justice from a controversy, the ghost of which is still haunting Sena cadres, not to mention the Thackerays.
But Mahajan plays down the effect on the BJP. "Why should the resignations affect the BJP? The Congress has no moral right to be part of this, especially since the Sharad Pawar government threw Hazare’s suggestions into the dustbin. Our government is honouring public sentiment," he contends, brushing aside any rift with the ABVP and the RSS. "The two ministers have resigned to ensure that the party is not blamed because of one individual. But the resignation is not an acceptance of guilt and their readiness to accept the inquiry says a lot about our commitment to the people."
But Hazare is not impressed. "While the ministers' resignation is acceptable to him, Anna-saheb will be suggesting two more names on the inquiry panel and will press for a permanent system to check corruption in the government," says Hazare's spokesperson. Hazare also plans to embark on a statewide mass awareness tour on December 5.
With Shivankar claiming "concern for Anna Hazare’s health" and Sutar refusing to comment on damaging documents pertaining to Hazare’s ‘Hind Swaraj’, the fires have been temporarily quelled. But while Hazare can go back to gaining lost weight, it will be some time before the Sena-BJP coalition can hope to gain lost ground.