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29 August, 2011

Scoring a half-victory

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As Anna Hazare ended his 13-day fast in New Delhi on Sunday and his supporters, many of them urban youth not affiliated to established parties, vociferously celebrated their half-victory, the political class that wields power at the Centre and in the states was quietly savouring its half-victory.

Although the media hailed the outcome of the clash of wills between Team Anna and the Central government as a victory of people’s power the 74-year-old social activist from Maharashtra, who had staked his life for the second time in five months in a Gandhian campaign, modestly described Parliament’s purported acceptance of his framework for a tough anti-corruption law as a half-victory.

The Congress, which heads the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, said it was a “win-win situation” for all stakeholders.

The formula which ended the confrontation was thrashed out by Congress leaders in a series of discussions held with members of Team Anna and leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition.

The fast Hazare undertook in April demanding a strong anti-corruption law was directed against Executive. When he broke the fast, Baba Ramdev, a yogi, tried to continue the agitation. The government sent the police to arrest and bundle him out of the capital. On Hazare’s return to fast again, it decided to handle the Gandhian in the same way as it had dealt with the yogi. It was a costly mistake.

Team Anna activated the support base that it had built up among the urban youth during the first fast using social networks like Twitter and Facebook. It also launched an SMS campaign. A huge crowd gathered outside the Tihar jail in support of Hazare who began fast in custody, ahead of schedule. Live television coverage boosted the team’s efforts and there were solidarity demonstrations and sympathetic fasts in several cities.

The authorities quickly released Hazare but he did not leave the prison until they granted permission to fast at the Ramlila grounds for two weeks. It was a compromise reached after negotiations. The government had asked him to limit the fast to a three-day period.

The second fast began after Parliament had taken up for consideration a government bill to establish the long-discussed anti-corruption machinery, named Lokpal. Hazare asked the government to withdraw its bill, which was before Parliament’s standing committee, and place before it the Jan Lokpal Bill he and his friends had drafted. It was a demand the government could not accept without loss of face.

Since Parliament was seized of the matter, the agitation should have assumed the character of a confrontation with that body. But the executive remained Team Anna’s main adversary as the opposition joined it in directing all ire at the government and the Congress party.

To begin with, the Congress picked its best legal brains to negotiate with Team Anna. They failed to recognise that the movement and its demands were essentially political and that public opinion was generally in agreement with Hazare’s stand that the government bill is weak.

As the legal experts failed to deliver the Congress brought in experienced political hands. They reached across to the parliamentary opposition and to Team Anna and brought about the happy win-win end.

On Saturday the two houses of Parliament discussed the Lokpal issue in terms of the compromise formula and adopted by acclaim a sense-of-the-house statement which conveyed agreement in principle with three points on which Hazare had sought assurances. This will now go to the standing committee which will look at draft prepared by various civil society groups besides the government bill.

Credit is due to the government, the BJP and Team Anna for resolving the conflict without damage to the constitutional provisions. However, there will be a lot of arguments in the coming days over the nature of the commitment Parliament has made.

Anna Hazare declared after breaking the fast that he would not rest until all the changes he was looking for were achieved. This leaves open the possibility of his returning to haunt the political class. He also indicated that he would now take up the issue of electoral reform, which, like the Lokpal legislation, has been talked about for decades with little action.

It may not be necessary for India’s political class to worry about a Twitter-driven revolution but it certainly will face new challenges if it does not refine its ability to feel the pulse of the people and fulfil their aspirations.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 29, 2011

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