Team Anna in Hisar: Wrong cause, wrong election, wrong rhetoric

Team Anna's decision to jump into the fray in the Hisar by-election is a mistake, period. And not for the usual reasons. It matters less if their stance strengthens the BJP, or if they are perceived as its allies. Nor is there anything wrong with a civil society group getting involved in electoral politics. The problem is that the leaders of the movement seem to have lost sight of their cause, which is fighting corruption – not the Congress party. And in doing so, they have chosen the wrong battle at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And here are three reasons why:

One, wrong cause. Anna Hazare went on a fast in August for an excellent reason. The proposed UPA Lokpal bill was a mockery of the very intent of the legislation, and the government clearly had no intention of meeting Anna's demand that the bill be proposed and passed in the monsoon session. The deadline ran out and he headed to Ram Lila.

 Team Anna in Hisar: Wrong cause, wrong election, wrong rhetoric

Aman Sharma/PTI

But the reasoning for this confrontation in Hisar is murky, to say the least. Anna wants the government to pass the Lokpal bill during the winter Parliamentary session, which will begin in November. The government can hardly be in violation of a deadline that has not yet arrived. So why punish the Congress for breaches of faith yet to be committed? Demands not yet rejected?

"Do not vote for Congress during the Hisar by-poll as we are yet to receive a letter of support from the party supporting the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament," says Hazare. Kejriwal even specifies that nothing less than a letter from Sonia Gandhi will do. So the recent letter from the Prime Minister of India clearly won't do because he doesn't count for Team Anna.

Now Arvind Kejriwal is saying, "If the Congress passes the Jan Lokpal Bill tomorrow, we will immediately withdraw our campaign." Down we go the slippery slope of unreasonable demands...

There's been much talk about "sending a message" but the only message here is that Team Anna is itching for any excuse for a fight with the ruling party. Perhaps because it keeps them in the spotlight and maintains the momentum gathered from the August fast. This is more a PR battle — or more likely vendetta — than a just war.

Two, wrong election. Hisar may seem like an obvious choice given Kejriwal's local roots. But it was likely also chosen for another more dubious reason: Hisar also promises an easy win. The Congress party candidate is an underdog in the fight, and is unlikely to win – with or without Anna's intervention. But by expediently relabeling the election as a "referendum on the Lokpal bill" – and rallying voters against a man already slated to lose — Team Anna is well-positioned to take credit for his defeat, and make it a symbol of popular will.

Nice idea except Raj Prakash is the cleanest and the least wealthy of the three candidates in the fray. To offer aid and comfort – even by default — to the likes of Ajay Singh Chautala and Kuldeep Bishnoi is hardly the way to promote the anti-corruption cause. Chautala has two pending cases of corruption, cheating and criminal conspiracy against him. And Bishnoi faces a case for attempted murder. Both are fabulously rich heirs of political dynasties with no apparent source of income.

"After all, these elected Congress candidates with a clean image will follow only the party high command's whip and not listen to their conscience," rebuts Anna when presented with such inconvenient facts. Kejriwal's comeback is equally unconvincing: "We never said that Chautala or Bishnoi is better than anyone else. If Chautala is facing charges, there is all the more reason for us to fight for the Jan Lokpal Bill so that anyone who indulges in corruption, irrespective of whosoever he may be, is punished promptly for his misdeeds." Yes, let's aid and abet the election of criminals so we can punish them later.

Besides, criminal-politicians are hardly more likely to support the Lokpal bill, party whip or not. (Not that there is any guarantee the BJP or other opposition parties will issue any such whip) And it certainly seems odd to remain silent about Bishnoi and Chautala, while Kejriwal and Sisodia campaign against Prakash with misleading slogans like "Congress ke haath, Bhrashtachaar ke saath (Congress' palm — it's election symbol — with corruption)," "Ab toh spasht hain, Congress party bhrasht hain (It's clear now, Congress is corrupt)." Not quite, at least not in this case.

Besides, they could have chosen one of the other bye-elections that offer choice targets like the one in Khadakwasala in Anna's home state, Maharashtra. Congress-supported Harshada, the wife of deceased Ramesh Wanjale, is the ultimate political fat cat with a notorious affection for gold. Even without Anna's benediction, BJP leader Gopinath Munde has been eagerly invoking his name: "Anna has asked people not to vote for the Congress as it is corrupt. His men are whole-heatedly campaigning against the party in Hisar (Haryana). So you as voters have to listen to Anna and vote against the corrupt Congress-NCP alliance in this by-poll."

But Khadakwasala does pose one tiny little problem: Harshada is expected to win. And that certainly won't send the "right message."

Three, wrong rhetoric. During the long summer of protest, Team Anna displayed its most impressive and lethal asset: message discipline. The tone was measured as was the language. And they were blessed with opponents suffering from an acute case of verbal diarrhoea. But this time around, they seem determined to match the likes of Digvijay Singh, word for ill-advised word.

For starters, Team Anna is no longer railing against the system but against one single political party.  Deny it as they may, the proof is in the pudding, as in quotes from Arvind Kejriwal like these: “We do not have ill will against the Congress. But if you Congresswallas do not pass the Jan Lokpal Bill, we will destroy the very foundation of the Congress in the country.”

Then there is the alarming shift to emotional blackmail in their speeches. The appeal is not to people's outrage against corruption this time around, but their personal loyalty to Anna. “You will have to inflict a historic defeat on the Congress. If you defeat the party, this will be Anna’s victory,” Kejriwal told the gathering.  At the end of another meeting, he upped the ante further: “Each one of your votes will act as a life breath for Anna. This government wants Anna to die. You can save his life with every vote of yours.”

But the worst of the lot is this:

He (Anna) has told me that if the Congress doesn't pass the Jan Lokpal Bill in the winter session, he will go on another hunger strike. Anna's life is in your hands. Each vote you cast against the Congress is like a breath for Anna-ji. I am not saying vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party either. There are 40 candidates, vote for any of them except the Congress. If you vote for the Congress, it will be desh-droh.

Elections are the life blood of a democracy. To use them as a tool of political opportunism is unwise and unseemly. But to label the free exercise of a citizen's vote for the party of his/her choice as an act of treachery is unforgivable. And it is a clear sign of a movement that is losing its direction and its head.

Updated Date: Oct 13, 2011 10:49:13 IST