SO WOULDÂ the UPA government do a replay of the Baba Ramdev episode, swoop down on Delhiâs Ramlila Maidan with a police (and maybe paramilitary) posse for a second time this year, disperse the crowds and force Anna Hazare into a hospital bed? The rumours flew thick and fast on 24 August, following the failure of the all-party meeting at the prime ministerâs residence.
In the end, it didnât matter if the rumours were true or false. The fact is they were believable.
The urban middle classes, Manmohan Singhâs most loyal supporters for seven years, and a formidable Congress constituency in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, had begun to believe the worst of their government.
That evening Manmohan admitted the government was âin a bindâ. It was left with an impossible choice. To surrender further to Hazare and his Jan Lokpal team would completely dismantle its credibility and authority. To take tough action would be to invite public outrage, another media circus and inevitable international criticism.
How had the bravado and bluster of two weeks ago come to this?
In some senses, the UPA managers had learnt no lessons. As talks broke down between Hazareâs colleagues and the government, there was an unseemly and unnecessary controversy over whether a minister had said, âAnnaâs fast is his problemâ. All along, there was resort to wordplay, semantic dexterity, plain hypocrisy and wild hope that the problem would disappear. On 23 August, ministers were openly saying that the throng would thin after the Janmashtmi weekend. The following day, they were confidently speculating that afternoon rain in the Capital would drive people away. All along, since Hazare began his fast, there was the smug belief that his health would deteriorate and he would retreat.
Was this pathetic fatalism what the Congressâ mighty politics had been reduced to?
Even in the hours before the all-party meeting, government sources were briefing mediapersons and insisting âmultiple levels of talksâ were underway with the Jan Lokpal Bill activists, Team Anna was ânot cohesiveâ, and the government was âuncertain of Annaâs own positionâ.
The prime ministerâs opening statement at the all-party meeting made it apparent this was not quite true. For all the so-called âmultiple levelsâ, there were only three serious interlocutors from the Hazare camp â Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Prashant Bhushan. They had made very specific demands. While it was impracticable for the government â for any government â to accede to all those demands, the fact remained they were cohesive.
Indeed, it was the government that had been anything but cohesive on the Lokpal Bill. Take the issue of bringing the prime minister under the ambit of the Lokpal, a concession the government was only too willing to make as Hazareâs fast entered week two. Just days earlier, there had been much bluster and astonishing political cleavage on this score.
At least two Congress Cabinet ministers privately claim they had sought to bring the prime minister within the purview of the Lokpal Bill. Yet the draft the government tabled in Parliament had no such provision. It was always clear this was going to be a bone of contention with the Hazare-led civil society activists as well as sections of the Opposition. Nevertheless the government was blasĂ© about it.
At his interaction with selected editors on 29 June, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even said, âI, for one, have no hesitation in bringing myself under the purview. But there are Cabinet colleagues of mine, who said, âSir, this is not your personal concern that matters. We are legislating for the people of India.â There are many members of the Cabinet who feel very strongly, that bringing the institution of the prime minister (under Lokpal), will create an element of instability, which at times can go out of hand.â
There was a strange dichotomy that Singh was admitting to here. âThere is no doubt a strong case for keeping the prime minister out of bounds for the Lokpal,â said a senior civil servant, âbut Manmohan says that is not his view. However he is allowing himself to be overruled by junior Cabinet colleagues. So is he right or are they right? If he doesnât share their view, why doesnât he insist on his opinion prevailing? On the other hand, if he is convinced his Cabinet colleagues are right, then why does he say he has a different view?â
Those seemingly straightforward questions actually sum up one of the Congressâ existential dilemmas: the continued and by now laboured attempts of the Manmohan camp to somehow sequester him from his party and the rest of his government. It has been apparent in the manner in which Manmohan has pleaded he is not responsible for corruption and blamed scandals on the autonomy of his Cabinet ministers, on alleged legacies of previous governments or on the exigencies of coalition politics.
It has led to a situation where there is a significant trust deficit between Manmohan and influential political voices in the Congress. This was obvious in the runup to the Hazare protest that began on 16 August.
This period coincided with Congress president Sonia Gandhiâs departure abroad for surgery. She left day-to-day management of the party in the hands of four individuals â her son Rahul Gandhi, Defence Minister AK Antony, Ahmed Patel, the Congress chiefâs closest political aide, and Janardhan Dwivedi, the partyâs leading media manager.
SIMULTANEOUSLY, MANMOHANÂ put together a four-man group to tackle the Hazare challenge. This comprised the prime minister himself, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal, Home Minister P Chidambaram and Rahul. This quartet met and decided to take a hard line against the Jan Lokpal activists, leading to, among other things, Hazareâs earlymorning arrest on 16 August and incarceration. âWhen this meeting was taking place,â said a senior Congress functionary, âAhmed Patel and Antony were made to wait outside the prime ministerâs room for 45 minutes. It was ridiculous.â
In essence, there was zero coordination between the political and administrative wings of the Congress. When the clumsy police action backfired â it had been preceded by one of the two ministers in Manmohanâs four-man team warning a civil society protester, âYou tell your friend (Hazare) to watch out. Weâll put him in Tihar Jailâ â the Congress had little sympathy for its prime minister.
Sibal and Chidambaram had taken a legalistic and somewhat imperious position on Hazare. âIt is obvious the prime minister is comfortable with this technocratic approach,â said a minister, âbut it was always a non-starter. Why was Vilasrao Deshmukh kept out of the Anna committee? As Maharashtra chief minister, he had long experience in neutralising Anna Hazare.â
Eventually, Deshmukh was brought in as an SOS measure, and used the services of a religious guru and a senior Maharashtra civil servant to reach out to Hazare. It was too late. The prime minister has never been comfortable with Deshmukh or his controversial image. Yet if he is a political resource, cold-blood pragmatism requires he be used. Quizzically the prime minister never did this.
The public response to the Hazare fast surprised and, in the words of a senior Congress functionary, ârattledâ the government. On Janmashtmi evening, two Congress ministers were discussing the crowds on the streets of Delhi, and elsewhere. âBut wonât it fade away after the holiday weekend?â one asked. âIâm not sure,â replied the other, âthereâs a lot of negative energy out there.â A Congress politician found herself driving down the India Gate area, watching flag-waving youth on motorcycles. âIt was like a World Cup victory,â she said, âbut the mood wasnât happy or celebratory.â