Daily Archives: August 16, 2011
Venky Vembu Aug 16, 2011
By a curious alignment of planets, Anna Hazare has captured the imagination of an India that is crying out for fundamental change. Gurinder Osan/AP
The events of recent weeks, culminating in Anna Hazare’s detention this morning, mark in many ways a defining moment in India’s evolution as a democracy. The upsurge of popular sentiment in cities across India this morning in solidarity with Team Anna’s detention is stunning. And the readiness with which people who normally go to elaborate lengths to avoid engagement with “dirty” politics are now courting arrest or are otherwise organising public protests – or even just quietly observing a day’s fast at home — to give expression to their sense of disgust with the UPA government’s handling of the Lokpal Bill exercise is quite unprecedented in independent India.
I know of professionals who have taken leave from their investment banking jobs abroad, where they earn six-figure dollar salaries and bonuses, just to be in India today to be part of this movement. One of them has even prepared his young wife for the inevitability of his arrest – which in his family would normally be considered a shame and a scandal – and has been organising protests in Mumbai for the past few days.
At NRI gatherings of Indians Against Corruption, the energy of young Indians sharing ideas to make India corruption-free has been palpable. The extent to which they are ready to step outside of their 9-to-5 grind and donate time and money for the biggest public cause that confronts India is a surprise – even to them. They say they used to think of themselves as apathetic to politics. But now, they’ve found a cause they believe in.
Watch images from the protests
This is the second time in the past few months that Anna Hazare has convincingly demonstrated the popular, mass-based nature of the support that his campaign enjoys, across class, caste and religious distinctions that normally divide us. We first saw it in April, when he launched his fast at Jantar Mantar, and electrified India. Since that time, he and his team have had the entire political establishment — and, to be honest, a cross-section of media commentators – clueless about how a man with little or no financial resources can command so large a following with only rustic simplicity and the power of a message that has great resonance with millions of people.
So, the fact that Anna Hazare and his team enjoys enormous goodwill with a large-enough constituency of people who are sick of corruption and jaded with politics as usual and who have completely lost faith in the political establishment in its entirety is blindingly obvious.
The question then arises: how can Team Anna now leverage this goodwill? Should it continue to remain the “outsider” calling the political establishment to account? What are the odds that it can succeed? How can it channel the deep-seated distrust of the political establishment and bring about demonstrable change.
To address that, it helps to assess the extent of “success” that Team Anna’s campaign has had. It’s beyond dispute that Team Anna’s one major success has been in giving voice to and amplifying the popular disgust with the top-down, 360-degree corruption that pervades our public life — and in showing up starkly that for all the power games that go on with the various political parties, they are pretty much united in their opposition to a strong Lokpal institution.
Yet, while Team Anna gets full marks for elevating the issue of corruption to the top of the agenda and for creating mass awareness, its attempts beyond that have only met with limited success. For instance, the Lokpal Bill that’s now before Parliament is a mere shadow of the strong anti-corruption agency it envisaged. And even those who are willing to stand up and be counted along with Anna aren’t fully convinced that Team Anna’s Jan Lokpal is the answer to corruption. If you can’t convince even those who support you, what chances do you stand against those who oppose you?
It is in that context that Team Anna needs to formulate a forward-looking political strategy.
Since it’s the current UPA government that is now doing its damnedest to water down the Lokpal Bill, it’s fair to say that it will pay a big political price when general elections are due next in 2014. By default, an alternative political formation could then come to power. But even in the event of, say, a BJP-led grouping coming to power, there’s nothing to suggest that it will work to change the system because it’s now too entrenched in the wily ways of electoral game-playing (as was demonstrated most strikingly in its handling of affairs in Karnataka). The BJP has thus far adopted only a wishy-washy stand on the Lokpal Bill, which validates the suspicion that it doesn’t want to alter the rules of the political game too drastically.
Enter the political arena
In any case, why should Team Anna do all the grunge work only to see another status quo-ist party ride on its back and come to power? Why not bite the bullet and enter the “dirty” political fray yourself?
It’s true that Anna Hazare has a disdain for electoral politics as it is practised now, where – in his words – people sell their vote for a bottle of liquor. He also considers himself “unelectable”, given the reality of the political arena. Yet, the biggest criticism that cripples the movement today is that since it is not elected – “or electable” – it has no right to influence the discourse on the Lokpal Bill, now that it is before Parliament.
It’s not just Congress lackeys who make that criticism. Even non-Congress politicians andinsightful commentators make that point.
On that count, Team Anna’s best days as an agent of change from the “outside” may be already over. From here on, it only risks elevating its politics of confrontation, which could erode the political goodwill it now enjoys. It’s perhaps time for Team Anna to enter the political arena and work for change from within.
Even if it does that, it doesn’t have to become just another political party. With the goodwill that it now enjoys and the energy it has infused in its supporters, it can change the way politics is played in India. What it lacks in money power, it can make up for with a bottom-up movement that, as has been already demonstrated, enjoys great resonance. In any case, as we saw with the routing of the DMK in Tamil Nadu, money power stands no chance when a people are set on throwing out a corrupt regime.
The challenges to becoming a mainstream political party are formidable, particularly when you’re (for now) only a one-issue party. But that issue – corruption — is one that is right at the top of people’s consciousness. And as the only political force that today enjoys a nationwide profile, is untainted by corruption, has a vision for changing the system – and a volunteer force that can more than compensate for the money power of its opponents with boots-on-the-ground campaign, Team Anna has enormous strengths in this battle.
Moments such as this come only once in a generation. By a curious alignment of planets, Anna Hazare has captured the imagination of an India that is crying out for fundamental change. It is time for it to seize the moment, stop being an outsider that has exhausted its influence as a change agent, enter electoral politics, and recreate an India in its own image.
“Saala jhooth bolela, kaali dilli ka chhora saala jhooth bolela” was a soulful but rebellious rendition of a Bhojpuri song which found resonance across eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in 1988-89. A rather little-known Bhojpuri singer named Baleshwar Yadav sung this song at the peak of the Bofors controversy and alluded to the involvement of the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in the corruption scandal by referring to him as “kaali Dilli ka chhora (lad from black Delhi)”. Given the melodious nature of the Bhojpuri language, this song was certainly coarse. Yet, it struck the chord with the Bhojpuri belt.
Obviously, in people’s court Rajiv Gandhi was held guilty of the Bofors pay-off in 1989 even though in legal parlance he was innocent. That Baleshwar Yadav’s song conveyed a far deeper political message than legal language was evident in 1989 elections when the Congress was decimated in the polls. Though Rajiv Gandhi and his cohorts tried to defend their position by applying legalese, it only made an adverse impact. V P Singh grew in stature and acceptance, not because of application of his superior oratory or logic but because his political idioms were carried to people like Baleshwar Yadav.
Obviously, the government of the day cannot be faulted for its lack of understanding of India’s political history. Prime minister Manmohan Singh is essentially a career bureaucrat whose brush with politics is self-admittedly a fortuitous event. But there is a battery of leaders within the party who know it quite well that the application of legalese and superior logic is bound to recoil on the government. This is significant in view of the fact that the government has marshalled top-notch lawyers in the garb of politicians to defend its position.
Take, for instance, the spirited defence put up by union home minister P Chidambaram, HRD minister Kapil Sibal or law minister Salman Khursheed who have been targeting and attacking Anna Hazare as if they were performing in a court of law. In a series of press conferences, these ministers have given long expositions on constitutional matters related to individual’s rights, role of parliament and judiciary and executive in a democracy.
The Congress has simultaneously unleashed another lawyer-turned-MP, Manish Tewari, to call Anna names and describe him and his associates as “company” quite akin to the D company. There is no doubt that the government and the Congress have jointly unleashed a battery of lawyers to employ their language to demolish Anna Hazare’s campaign, vilify him and neutralise him with their superior skill of logic.
Contrast this with Anna Hazare’s one-liners coming straight out of innocent rusticity prevalent in India. He offered to serve Kapil Sibal and carry a “bucket of water” for him (“Sibal ke yahan paani bharoonga”) if the Lokpal turns out to be ineffective in tackling corruption. He is not ashamed of showing his ignorance about the complex legalese employed by legal hawks, academia or social elites of Delhi. His certain expressions may sound “anarchic” to constitutionalists. But is India not called a “functional anarchy” by the same set of people?
By all indications, Anna’s political project of getting India rid of corruption has found greater acceptance among people despite the superior logic of his opponents. However, it appears quite amazing that the opposition has still failed to assess the mood of people and has been relying more on the prowess of legalese and complex language and less on its political instincts to comprehend this phenomenon. This is evident by the manner in which the principal opposition, BJP, has not been as forthright in its political response as its ally, Nitish Kumar, with regard to Anna Hazare’s campaign.
There are many instances in Indian political history when people rejected sophisticated language of rulers and opted for a coarse and rustic idiom which found resonance with the people. Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s famous line “Singhasan khali karo ki janata aati hai” (vacate the throne lest people come) was an instant hit during the emergency period though there were cries of “India is Indira and Indira is India” in a very sophisticated English language by Devkant Baruah.
|16 Aug 2011|
If a single event encapsulates the corruption, sleaze and political callousness that bedevils the common man today, it is the Commonwealth Games of 2010, whose reverberations are still roiling the polity and the ruling Congress party. Even as unending price rise drives the middle class and poor to despair, and the Finance Ministry and Reserve Bank insist no relief is likely, a brazen Delhi Government threatens citizens with a staggering 60% hike in power tariffs, after having scandalously intervened last year to inhibit a price cut that was originally envisaged by the relevant authority.
That is the true measure of the rot wrought by chief minister Sheila Dikshit. A necessary corrective would be to return this essential service to the public sector, while ensuring zero protection to power theft that makes the utility unviable. In fact, the profit allowed to the private companies would have ensured the necessary modernization of equipment, on which they anyway dragged their feet.
Ms Dikshit, meanwhile, despite blistering indictments by the Prime Minister-appointed V.K. Shunglu Committee and the Comptroller & Auditor General’s report on the Commonwealth Games, got powerful protection from the chief control of the Congress party and the fraying UPA coalition. She refused to resign, forcing the Congress to make a dramatic volte face, from bragging about how it secured the resignations of Shashi Tharoor, Suresh Kalmadi, Andimuthu Raja and others caught in one or other controversy, to rallying around the impugned chief minister. Ironically, the BJP had forced Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyyurappa to resign only so it could confront her.
Both Shunglu Committee and CAG Report brought the spotlight of corruption on Sheila Dikshit who was in-charge of the major expenditure, totalling Rs 16,560 crore on just eight city projects (including the sub-standard Barapullah flyover). Both found that the Delhi government overspent and wasted money by manufacturing an artificial crisis of deadlines by delaying the start of CWG-related projects till literally the last three years of a seven-year timeframe. This led to ‘emergency’ decisions, compromising cost and quality.
Though a full year has not passed since the Games were held, a drive through Games-related areas shows pot-holed roads, bumpy flyovers, crumbling pavements and chipped tiles, dead or dying plants on road dividers and the peculiar green net and stakes installed to hold the plants spilling out on the roads, creating a traffic hazard. They should be removed without further ado, before they cause accidents like the utterly ill-conceived and murderous BRT corridors. The BRT corridors – another money-making consultant-driven scheme – need to be ripped up, not extended. Even if workable in theory, the Metro makes them redundant.
In this writer’s mind, the most evocative image of the Commonwealth Games concerns the collapse of the new foot over-bridge near Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, just 12 days before the inauguration ceremony, critically injuring several workers. PWD minister Raj Kumar Chauhan (recently indicted by Delhi Lokayukta but protected by his boss), glibly asserted that the structure collapsed because the pins were not secured properly. Then Urban Development minister Jaipal Reddy said, “This is a minor incident. The Commonwealth Games will not be judged by this.”
But Ms Dikshit took the cake. Stupefied citizens saw her on television, brushing aside the media with Antoinette-like memorable words: “The over-bridge was for spectators, not for the games officials or the athletes…” Did she mean she could bump off spectators, ordinary citizens like us? She got away with it because the Prime Minister appealed to let the Games happen for the sake of the nation, and old fashioned nationalism carried the day. But in those heady months of untrammelled power, Dikshit merrily spurned the Commonwealth Games Federation’s screams over the state of the Games Village, even as the filth of the residential towers became an international scandal.
Actually, the Commonwealth Games was from inception a non-government entity. Bizarre as it sounds, it was the brainchild, not of the then ruling party, but of the then Leader of the Opposition! This explains much of the confusion in execution, and the ability of the London-based Federation to covertly foist Mr. Suresh Kalmadi as chairman of the Organising Committee, keeping governmental supervision at bay (to its own regret).
The Delhi government’s functioning was opaque; selection of consultants arbitrary; standards and specifications amenable to instant modifications, and budgets eminently stretchable. The CAG found overspending of over Rs. 100 crore on streetscaping and beautification alone, with average cost for projects pegged at Rs. 4.8 cr/km. By contrast, a four-lane national highway costs Rs 9.5 crore/km; railway tracks come at Rs 4.1 crore/km!
Money was made on street lights (forget the contract to a disqualified firm). Violating norms, tenders were restricted to manufacturers of luminaries of international repute and higher financial eligibility, keeping competition restricted. MCD allowed deviance from design specifications in lighting standards, leading to larger number of poles and luminaries on certain roads and avoidable expenditure. Bids were altered in Phase I and II of tendering, again escalating costs.
The CAG found that the chief minister ordered imported lighting equipments in Type A and Type B roads, and indigenous lights for Type C roads. Besides creating a caste hierarchy of city roads, she permitted a huge cost differential which benefitted two private firms. One firm imported luminaries from a Gulf country at the rate of Rs 5,440/unit while charging Rs 25,704/unit. Worse, the chief minister imperiously ordered ripping out all tiles installed in Connaught Place as she did not like the colour!
If Dr Manmohan Singh wishes to restore public confidence in his government, he must give the CBI a free hand to investigate the chief minister, her erring colleagues and protégés, and bring them to book. We must know if we are a free country or a banana republic.
The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com
16 August 2011, 11:09 AM IST
A clueless UPA has done what every autocrat does in times of defeat. Crush, show the state power, and stifle the people’s voice and then look around with a stiff neck — hey, any one else? Unaware of the meteoric suddenness with which events unfold, the ruler never realizes that it’s the people who once powered him to ascendancy and it’s the people who will take back that mandate. We love to think we are immortals. Rulers cling to power as if both are made for each other, forever. Anna was willing to talk. He was placid. He didn’t denounce ministers and walked an extra mile to speak to Sonia and her entire power packed group, with Prime Minister and cabinet members. He was given to understand that everyone wants to end corruption. The same ‘red carpet at airport and savagery in Ramlila ground’ style governance unfolded minutes after Anna left the high-profile meeting. Minister after minister mocked at his ideas, in signed articles and on screen. ‘If you want to educate a child, Lokpal will not help,’ said the one who was on the committee to draft the bill. Then why did he accept to be on the committee? Ending corruption does mean providing more for the children’s education and drinking water to the villages. But hate knows no logic. So much was the muck being thrown on anti-corruption campaigner Anna that he had to write to Sonia that Congress leaders were trying to derail the process of drafting the Lokpal Bill by a smear campaign, and she must restrain her colleagues. Nothing happened. By God’s grace, that time she was ok and in Delhi. We wish her early recovery and a healthy long life, but does she have the same sentiments for Anna? If yes, then why this brutality against him by those who are close to her? If anything happens to the old, frail-bodied Gandhian, what will be the consequences? Daily doses of acidic allegations, to the extent alleging he is corrupt, convey a definite message on behalf of the UPA.
It’s not a joke that the common Indian, children and the aged, are feeling an affinity to Anna and not with those who are out to crush his movement and put an inhuman pressure on him. The one who so transparently leads a historic campaign, without any crutches or a well-oiled framework of organization, relying entirely on people’s good faith in goodness, is being attacked by Gandhi cap driven khaki. I believe nothing can be perfect, even Lokpal. But what then is meant by a human endeavor? It’s the closest we can inch towards creating a better environment to nail the bad. Like any other law, that might not be an answer to everything, still there has to be a rule of law and new laws need to be enacted and it helps. Lokpal has to be discussed and passed by Parliament. But how does a fast derail or challenge that process? Anna was assured something, and Lokpal bill draft contains something else. Who ditched whom? Is Anna at fault if he is anguished and feels backstabbed? Even if the government thinks he is being unreasonable and too adamant, is this the way to stop a citizen’s protest and curb his democratic rights? Can this government ask Rahul to limit his entourage to fifty persons and twenty cars? And not to go to Bhatta Parsaul or Amethi? What is not doable to a Congressman, how can that become a lawful act against any other citizen?