How Baba & Anna walked into political vacuum left by Cong

By Sanjay Pugalia

The emergence of Baba Ramdev centre-stage is the result of the UPA government’s foolish ‘head-clerk’ approach to handling issues revolving around corruption.

The UPA is clearly in a bind trying to manage not-so-mainstream political forces. From Anna Hazare to Baba Ramdev, the government is grappling with those who can sit on fasts and threaten to give up their lives for the sake of any issue. Tackling corruption and bringing back “kala dhan” are catchwords, certainly not themes that are plain enough to link with fasts-unto-death.

But thus far the UPA has shown bureaucratic reflexes rather than political wisdom. It is merely 'handling' such issues instead of actually 'fighting' corruption. While ‘handling it’ may be a short-term imperative for the ruling establishment and can be done with political instruments, fighting the menace needs much more – from sincerity to ability and, of course, the willingness to actually attack it. But what we are actually seeing is a regime obsessed with process, unconcerned with outcomes.

The government initially believed that graft-related issues are not serious enough to threaten its existence. What began with the Lalit Modi-Shashi Tharoor tweet war and related investigations has now snowballed into a first-rate political crisis. Even as the 2G scandal was raising hackles all around, the Commonwealth Games scam blew up in the government’s face, but even now the government response is incoherent.

In fact, it is the courts that are directing the investigations rather than the executive. The government is busy treating the symptoms rather than attempting a comprehensive clean-up. It has become a prisoner of events that have been crafted and manipulated by forces outside the government – but exacerbated by mis-steps  within. Never before has a Congress-led Government seemed so reactive and helpless concurrently.

 How Baba & Anna walked into political vacuum left by Cong

From Anna Hazare to Baba Ramdev, the government is grappling with those who can sit on fasts and threaten to give up their lives for the sake of any issue.

Look how the government handled the issue. Once it realised that corruption was becoming a serious concern for the middle class, it offered a few token statements and blundered along. “We will take action”; “we will seek information from other governments about black money;” “we will monitor all travel to tax havens, including Switzerland”; “we will bring laws to fight graft…” – that has been the refrain. And, predictably, we saw yet another Group of Ministers (GoM) being constituted to deal with corruption-related issues. The government also got various agencies to probe and raid some offenders, but the public isn’t ready to credit it for any of the results.

What is most amusing is the belief that the government has in its actions. Add to that the arrogance and pedestrian assumption that by tracking travels to Switzerland it will be able to identify the black money trail. Switzerland is a popular tourist destination among Indians. By monitoring data on journeys performed to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Mauritius or any other such tax haven, close to nothing can be achieved. It is naive to believe that in today’s world, cross-border movement of money can be tracked by monitoring people’s geographical movements.

The owners of black money don't have to travel anywhere. They can operate their Swiss accounts sitting in India. They can open accounts, move cash, and transfer wealth from Delhi to Luxemburg to Singapore at the click of a button.

Sonia Gandhi's five-point plan to eradicate corruption, which includes steps to curb the discretionary powers of ministers, getting black money back and some other ideas, hasn’t got off to any kind of start. Meanwhile, the government has promised to be ready with the draft of the Lokpal bill by 30 June. In reality, we don't see any solid deliberations within the ruling establishment on how to attack the root cause of corruption. We haven't heard much on electoral reforms – the root cause of high-level corruption.

Until we do something about electoral funding, the fight against corruption will be limited to noise. Till we stop politicians accused of serious crimes from contesting elections, no real political reform will take place. If an accused should be presumed innocent till proven guilty, it is up to the political parties to take action against their corrupt members.

Till we unleash administrative reforms where delays in decision-making are considered a serious offence, till we make the whole process of selling national resources like land, minerals and airwaves transparent, the fight against corruption will be a futile exercise.

While the government has been trying to hoodwink the people with its shoddy ways, the opposition has lost a big opportunity to seize the moment with creative ideas. It is into this vacuum that the Baba Ramdevs and Anna Hazares have stepped in. Both of them have a limited (if any) understanding of the issues at hand, but on the back of middle class angst and hyper media coverage, they have become the torch-bearers of this crusade. They are moral authoritarians, and are being assisted by people with questionable credentials.

With a seemingly well-meaning troika (Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi) at the helm of affairs, the Congress is displaying political incompetence rather than acumen. Instead of steadily building its case for 2014 and Rahul Gandhi, it has squandered the mandate of 2009.

The establishment probably chose to 'handle' corruption rather than attack it because, like many others, it believes that the issue has a limited lifecycle. It probably underestimated the number of skeletons that were going to tumble out of the cupboard once it was opened. See the irony. Never before have so many powerful people – from A Raja and Suresh Kalmadi to Sanjay Chandra and other businessmen and CEOs - been sent to jail. Those who are still outside jail are quaking in fear. The government is in no position to take credit for it, for it's the Supreme Court’s doing.

The political leadership might be under the impression that its gameplan to get votes will continue to work even if there is some noise about corruption, since the money tap is open elsewhere: they believe that subsidies and planned cash transfers, jobs and food guarantees to the poor and cheap farm loans and better income tax rates will get the targeted constituencies to vote for them.

It could be mistaken because corruption is an over-riding concern and doing your other job well doesn't mean that the voter will forgive or forget the betrayal of the trust reposed in 2009. Ask Karunanidhi. All the freebies in the world did not stop the Tamil electorate from dumping him unceremoniously.

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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2011 10:10:06 IST


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