By Abhay Vaidya
For almost four days after Team Anna named Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and 14 of his cabinet colleagues as guilty of corruption on 26 May, almost everyone was contemptuously dismissive of this civil society group.
The Congress, which rubbished the allegations as "unsubstantiated averments", said they didn’t even need to be responded to. Team Anna’s attack on the ultra-clean image of the prime minister was described by sections of the media as “an act of desperation”. Everyone was aghast that Team Anna had stooped rather low and made seemingly wild allegations of corruption against Manmohan Singh. Even the prime minister was hurt and, while on the flight back from Myanmar, vowed to give up public life "even if there is an iota of truth” in the allegations levelled against him on the coal blocks issue. The Comptroller and Auditor General is supposed to have pointed out the coal ministry's lapses in this regard, but the report is not out officially yet.
The focus then shifted to the complete erosion of Team Anna’s credibility, to the extent of describing Anna as a village simpleton held captive by a motley crowd of trouble-makers and image grabbers who were dogmatic and bent on pushing their own, disruptive agenda. Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid, for example, wanted the 74-year-old Hazare to be saved "from these people".
The prime minister and Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal had swiftly dismissed the allegations after issuing a clarification and Congress spokespersons went on the offensive. “What credibility do they have? Are we going to institute a probe panel on their asking?” was the line taken by party spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury and others against Team Anna.
Once hailed for their crusade against corruption, this civil society group was now being mocked at.
By Day 5, the attitude of the media and others towards Team Anna changed from being completely dismissive to a grudging acceptance of the issues raised by it. What had changed?
The turning point was the announcement by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) that it had directed the CBI to conduct a preliminary enquiry into the alleged irregularities in allocation and utilisation of coal blocks by private companies in 2006-09. Prime minister Singh was in charge of the coal ministry during much of this period. On 1 June the CBI initiated its probe into the 10 March complaint by BJP leaders Prakash Javdekar and Hansraj Ahir.
Once again Team Anna members were beginning to be taken seriously on TV debates and they were persistent in their demand that an independent panel of retired judges should conduct the probe into the PMO’s role into Coal-gate. The CBI, they emphasised, was incapable of undertaking an impartial probe into the affairs of its own super-boss.
By 1 June, Coal Minister Jaiswal, who had thumped his chest and justified the allocation of the coal blocks “to make power available to the common man at affordable prices,” had fallen silent. By this time, the media had gone deeper into the issue of coal block allocations - first exposed by The Times of India through its story on a draft CAG report - and was convinced that a case worthy of investigation did exist.
It was neither the nation’s principal opposition party, the BJP nor the Left that had picked up the thread on Coal-gate as effectively as Team Anna. It was a bruised, battered and condemned Team Anna which did this, drawing the nation’s attention to the alleged involvement of the PMO in Coal-gate. Whether the PMO stands indicted or absolved of the allegations is a matter to be settled by the investigating authority. The debate has now moved on to whether this investigating agency should be the CBI or an independent panel of retired judges, as demanded by Team Anna.
The fact is that whether it is the Lokpal movement of 2011 or the latest twist in Coal-gate, no one can deny that Team Anna has excelled as a worthy Opposition. In both instances, this civil society group emerged as agenda setter for the country without much experience in politics or the benefit of an organised mass base that political parties enjoy.
The allegations made by Team Anna against the prime minister and 14 of his cabinet colleagues cannot be dismissed lightly because it is unlikely that they were made without any basis. Notwithstanding their mistakes and internal differences—which happens in all groups—it is worth remembering that the team comprises a set of highly successful people in their own areas of work. It includes an accomplished father-son team of Supreme Court lawyers well-versed in public interest issues (Shanti and Prashant Bhushan); two Magsaysay awardees who have a firm understanding of bureaucratic manipulations (Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi), one retired Supreme Court judge (Santosh Hegde) and a grassroots social worker whose crusades against corruption in Maharashtra led to the resignations of a couple of cabinet ministers.
Hazare undoubtedly has his limitations, but to dismiss him as a village simpleton amounts to insulting one’s own intellectual merit.
All political parties are now preparing their strategies for the 2014 elections and whatever they do or don’t do would be influenced by calculations for maximising political gains. There will be conflict and compromise; agreements and disagreements, all primarily for political gains and not necessarily in public interest. As is happening with the principal opposition, there will be intense in-fighting, factional feuds and jostling for a superior positioning.
Amidst such a scenario, when other civil society groups have withdrawn into their own shells, it is no small achievement for Team Anna to persist and make its voice heard in its crusade against corruption.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is unlikely to have peaceful nights till his name is cleared from Coal-gate. In another context, he has already blamed “compulsions of coalition politics” for some aspects of poor governance. Was Coal-gate a part of this compulsion too? Undoubtedly, Team Anna deserves to be taken seriously and shown the respect of a worthy Opposition.