Monday, June 06, 2011

Ramdev and Hazare put the government in a tight spot

A part of this story has been used in the June 6, 2011 edition of DNA newspaper

Bharatiya Janata Party’s Arun Jaitley did not hide his anger and irritation that the UPA government chose to deal directly with Anna Hazare and his associates on the Lokpal bill and with yoga teacher Ramdev on the issue of corruption and black money, and ignored the main opposition party, the BJP, in the process. He complained that when things came to a head with Anna Hazare, the government chose to fire over the shoulder of the opposition by seeking the opinion of chief ministers and other parties.

The UPA’s woes with Ramdev can be traced to this new tactic of the Congress to deal with members of civil society directly, to prove its transparency in the matter of fighting corruption through measures like the Lokpal bill and retrieve money stashed by away tax evaders in foreign banks.

Congress leaders did not seem to realize that the civil society tribunes could be troublesome, ambitious and recalcitrant as it turned out to be in the case of Ramdev, and as it was turning out to be in the case of social activist Anna Hazare. The Congress had entered uncharted territory, and it has completely burnt its fingers. Again Jaitley’s taunt that this government was “too clever by half’ rang true.

When Anna Hazare went on fast, Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi instantly fired off a letter asking him to withdraw his fast and promising him the UPA’s seriousness in fighting corruption. This led to the Manmohan Singh government inducting five members including Hazare and father-son duo of Shanti and Prashant Bhushan, RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal and Karnataka Lok Ayukta Santosh Hegde.

When Ramdev declared his intent to go on fast on the issue of getting the black money from foreign banks, prime minister Manmohan Singh wrote him a letter. This was followed by the obsequious gesture of four senior ministers led by Pranab Mukherjee meeting with Ram Dev at Delhi airport last Wednesday, followed by marathon talks led by ministers Kapil Sibal and Subodh Kant Sahay on Friday in a hotel room. The negotiations were not above board, either from the government’s side or from the side of Ramdev. Both the sides played truant, and each caught the other out. And it resulted in Sunday’s political explosion.

Both the prime minister and the Congress president wanted to play the anti-corruption card as honestly as one could, but when it turned into a political bargain, they left themselves no room to retreat. Critics say that the Natiional Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Gandhi is at the root of the meddlesome civil society activists interfering in the business of making laws and actual governance. And that one the UPA and Congress started to walk on this slippery ground, they did not know how to hold themselves back. The NAC arm-twisted the government to implement the rural employment guarantee programme, and they are now pressing relentlessly for the food security bill. The rural employment programmed fetched the UPA and the Congress political dividend in the 2009 election, and they were encouraged to walk into the booby trap laid by the civil society representatives. Hazare came into the fray followed by Ramdev. The government and party were overwhelmed.

It is believed that it is the good intentions and absence of political experience of Singh and Gandhi that has created this mess in the engagement with civil society.

Political parties, including the Congress and the BJP, are fighting to regain their ground. Unfortunately, all the political parties want to use the civil society groups against each other. The BJP does not shun Ramdev though it is careful enough to distance itself from the controversial yoga teacher, and it does not hide its dislike of Anna Hazare.

The Congress wanted to use Hazare and Ramdev to undermine the BJP as well as the rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The civil society activists are emboldened to play ball on their own terms. Though the BJP might derive immense satisfaction from Congress’ discomfiture, it will have to cope with the arm-twisting of the RSS and the Vsishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) when it is in office .

The political parties and the civil society agitators are undermining the institutions and processes of Indian democracy in the bargain, and it is the people of India who are the losers in the power games played out by the politicians and the demi-politicians

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