Anna Hazare and co. walk tightrope after Ramdev's exit
Anna Hazare and other civil society leaders need to come down hard on the government for its raid on Ramdev but not kill its own Lokpal bill.
Anna Hazare and other civil society leaders told a gathering at the Press Club on Sunday that they are going to skip the first much anticipated meeting of the Joint Drafting Committee of the Lokpal Bill.
But is it to show solidarity with what happened to Baba Ramdev? Well, yes and no.
Baba Ramdev might have been thrown out of Delhi, but his stormy exit has left in its wake a political minefield for the other anti-corruption crusader left behind: Anna Hazare. The Jantar Mantar crowd always had a Ramdev problem – to embrace or politely ignore? A question that's become a lot more complicated now.
When Hazare was asked if he had spoken to Ramdev yet, he admitted he had not. When asked if he would share a dais with him soon, he would only say “We have some questions. If those get sorted out, then we can sit together.”
Sharing a dais with Baba Ramdev came with its share of political hazards for Anna Hazare. The group had gone back and forth on it for the last few days. Now the government, with its midnight assault, has taken care of that tricky issue. But here’s the new conundrum. How do you condemn what happened — strongly, unequivocally, and with credibility — without slamming the door shut on your own Lokpal Bill?
Unlike the civil society leaders, Baba Ramdev doesn't need to be at the negotiating table to assert his power. He can instead leverage his departure to his greater glory, playing the martyr in Haridwar. Besides, the goal of his fast was not only to fight black money, but also to demonstrate his leadership muscle. He can do it just as well outside Delhi. Ramdev doesn't even need to make his future satyagraha about anti-corruption legislation anymore. It can now be entirely about him – as is clear in his allegations about a conspiracy to assassinate him.
The civil society leaders don’t have a readymade political base, or tacit party support from the likes of BJP, RSS et al. They represent a loose coalition of leaders and activists united by the aim to create a very specific piece of legislation. The Lokpal bill is their very raison d'etre. Their success requires negotiating with the government to ensure its creation. The civil society leaders need to be at that table. But in the wake of what happened on Saturday, they cannot be there.
So the Indians Against Corruption, came up with their version of the Texan two-step.
Make all the symbolic gestures – issue a strong condemnation, announce a Jantar Mantar fast on June 8 in symbolic support, and demand an explanation from the Prime Minister for this “assault on democracy,” accompanied by required references to the Emergency... But without aligning forces with him, just embracing his campaign against bhrastachar.
Pull out of the much anticipated Monday meeting of the Joint Drafting committee for the Lokpal bill... But only the June 6 session, and no more.
“We are not boycotting the Joint Drafting Committee,” said Swami Agnivesh carefully. “It’s just one meeting.”
“We are just asking the government to make its stand clear on these contentious issues,” said Kiran Bedi. “They know our views. We are saying can we have yours before we proceed?”
But what’s this got to do with the assault on the yoga shibir? Surely, those issues were 'contentious' even before the police tear-gassed the Ramdev camp.
"What Saturday’s events showed is that the government does not have good intentions," explained lawyer Arvind Kejriwal. "The government is suspect. It is spinning us around."
Then why not pull out altogether?
“Faith is not finished yet,” said Anna Hazare. “We still have faith.”
But it’s hard to talk about faith in one breath and accuse the government of two-faced duplicity with the other.
The civil society leaders find themselves treading a political tightrope that requires maintaining their crusading cred without jeopardizing future negotiations. A reason why Swami Agnivesh makes a careful distinction between the group's two demands: one, an explanation from the Prime Minister about the police assault; and two, the government’s stand on various points of contention in the Lokpal bill.
“But we are not linking the two,” he said.
A careful parsing that is easier said than done. Hazare, who has visited the injured, seemed clearly shaken by the events.
“I saw the signs of lathi charge on the faces of the women,” he said, comparing what happened Saturday night to what the English did at Jallianwallah Bagh. Hence the promise to come back to Jantar Mantar for a day of fasting and prayer on 8 June.
“I will pray to God that this government gets some sense. It is unheeding today,” he said. “And if it does not work we will launch a big andolan. I will fight corruption as long as I have life in me.”
What if the government refuses to allow gatherings at Jantar Mantar or Ramlila grounds, someone asked. Anna folded his arms across his chest and retorted: “Kya Dilli kisi ke pita ne kharidke rakha hay? Yeh janta ka sampatti hai. (Did someone’s father buy Delhi ? It is the property of the people.)”
Fighting words but the symbolic gestures can only buy a little breathing room. Difficult decisions – both about a possible alliance with Ramdev and negotiations with the government – cannot be indefinitely postponed.
Perhaps Kapil Sibal is indeed right. Everyone did learn a lesson today. But only time will tell if the Hazare supporters learned the right one.
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One has only to recount statements from both sides to appreciate that it’s more than an ideological divide which separates the two. Can a deal be struck?
The gloves are off is a limited expression. It's a bloody war out there. As both sides turn nasty, the hope of the draft Lokpal Bill recedes.