Anna was an afterthought in anti-corruption crusade

The story of the rise of Anna as the face of the anti-corruption movement had its own twists and turns. The movement did not start with corruption as its focus nor was Anna its initiator.

Raman Kirpal August 17, 2011 14:34:24 IST
Anna was an afterthought in anti-corruption crusade

If the figure of Anna Hazare has become a larger-than-life symbol of the anti-corruption movement in India, the real story is a bit more complicated. Anna wasn’t always the leader in waiting, and a strong Lokpal Bill wasn’t the destination of the movement. In fact, it wasn’t even a movement to start with.

The story doesn’t begin with Anna starting out as an anti-corruption crusader building his movement brick by brick and finding followers along the way. In fact, corruption wasn’t the focus of the initial movers and shakers in this story.

It began with different civil society activists pursuing their own goals before it all fell into place as events unfolded over 2010. Anna Hazare was grafted onto the movement at the last stage — once the activists decided they needed a credible face to show the world.

The first chapter begins with 43-year-old Arvind Kejriwal’s quest for a role in the Central Information Commission, the apex oversight body under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

When the post of Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) fell vacant, Kejriwal and his associate Manish Sisodia started a campaign to promote the idea that the job should not be reserved for retired government servants. Kejriwal felt that the RTI structure had itself become very corrupt, and probably nursed thoughts of taking on the job himself. But the fact is he didn’t stand a chance.

In the absence of any backers in officialdom, Kejriwal decided to back former IPS officer Kiran Bedi’s name for the CIC post. To promote Bedi, he launched a Facebook campaign and even issued letters to the media and the government to build visibility. Letters were written to Sonia Gandhi asking her to ensure transparency in the appointment of the CIC.

It was at the peak of this campaign, around end-2009, that we see Anna Hazare entering the picture – but only as an endorser of Bedi’s candidature for CIC in place of Wajahat Habibullah, who was retiring. The common link between Kejriwal, Bedi and Anna? All three were Magsaysay award winners.

Anna was an afterthought in anticorruption crusade

Manvender Vashist/PTI

Apart from Anna Hazare, Bedi’s other backers included people like Subhash Chandra of Zee Entertainment, actor and producer Aamir Khan, Infosys’ NR Narayana Murthy, and interestingly, Baba Ramdev – who was to be another failed actor in the fight against corruption later.

In the event, the Bedi campaign flopped as the government ultimately opted for the safety of a retiring official, AN Tiwari, in September 2010. Firstpost has documented the dubious ways in which Tiwari pushed his candidature in a story published in July.

So, till late 2009, we see only Kejriwal and Bedi coming together to make a bid for an RTI post, in cahoots with Manish Sisodia. So where did the others – the father and son duo of Shanti and Prashant Bhushan – enter the picture? And Anna Hazare himself?

This is what happened, according to close associates of Kejriwal, Sisodia and the Bhushans. Even as the campaign to catapult Bedi as CIC was petering out in the face of bureaucratic machinations, corruption was emerging centre-stage with the unveiling of the Niira Radia tapes.

Prashant Bhushan’s Centre for Public Interest Litigation had moved a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a court-monitored investigation into the 2G spectrum scam by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Shocked by the extent of corporate lobbying involved in the 2G scam – as evident in the Radia tapes – the Supreme Court decided in mid-December that it will indeed directly monitor the CBI’s investigations.

This was a turning point where Kejriwal & Co shifted their goalposts from RTI to corruption. They roped in Bhushan and his father at this stage, but once this was decided, they realised that they still needed a credible face to lead the movement. Who could it be?

At this stage, Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, with the consent of Prashant and Shanti Bhushan, went to meet Anna Hazare in his village Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district.

Why did they zero in on him? After all, Anna was hardly a nationally known figure. And despite the fact that he had worked wonders for his own village, he did not have a huge following even in his home state of Maharashtra.

One factor worked in his favour. Despite having many detractors and with a reputation for stubbornness, everybody was clear on one thing: he was personally incorruptible.

Anna signed on to the Kejriwal-Bhushan plan and the group strategically decided that it would focus its attention on a strong Lokpal Bill. By March-April 2011 their strategy was in place and they used the device of a fast-unto-death by Anna at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in April this year to push for it.

The huge public support for the fast – virtually unexpected when the movement was launched virally through Facebook and social media campaigns – convinced everyone that they had got the right issue at the right time. The people were ready. And now they had a face that could not be smeared easily to lead it.

As the government caved in to Team Anna’s demand for a joint drafting of the Lokpal Bill, Kejriwal and Bhushan realised that they were on to a good thing with Anna. The only mistake the latter made was to praise Narendra Modi in public in the early stages of the campaign. This would have been a deal-breaker for the Bhushans. But luckily for the Bhushans, Anna soon backtracked on Modi and saved the day.

Aided by TV, a sharp shift in public mood against politicians and their corruption, Team Anna was on its way to stardom.

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