For close to two weeks, Team Anna has been facing the heat, with strong differences among its members and accusations of less than legal behaviour against its star campaigners hitting the headlines. For the ruling Congress, which was at the receiving end, this is good news but party leaders feel it's too early to see this as the start of the party regaining its credibility, especially among the vocal middle class.
“Team Anna has begun to crumble,” a senior party functionary told The Hindu,” but I am not sure whether that has yet begun to help us. We are where we were.”
Ever since India Against Corruption's campaign hit the streets, the government has experimented with a variety of strategies, the constant being a periodic reiteration of measures and actions it has taken — and is taking — to battle corruption. But it is clear that initially it failed to gauge the potential of the Hazare campaign — something Union Law Minister Salman Khursheed admitted recently — and was then forced to adopt the other extreme of agreeing to a joint drafting committee on the proposed Lokpal Bill.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, from the start, taken a conciliatory line. Earlier this month, he wrote two letters to Mr. Hazare to keep him abreast of the state of the Lokpal Bill, even agreeing to examine a suggestion on the Right to Recall and other electoral reforms. Returning from South Africa, the Prime Minister told journalists that though he felt that Mr. Hazare's movement had run its course, he conceded that the debate on corruption had awakened the country to its harmful consequences.
Mr. Khursheed, on his part, sought to regain political ground lost to IAC by pushing for a constitutional status to strengthen the Lokpal Bill, while poking gentle fun at Team Anna. He said a party that had won freedom for this country did not need to take lessons from any other organisation on how to run a movement.
This low-key approach is in sharp contrast to the statements emanating from Congress general secretaries Digvijay Singh and B.K. Hariprasad: they have been frontally attacking Mr. Hazare, stressing that his campaign has the backing of the RSS-BJP combine. These sharp attacks have not always found favour with the Congress: party media chairperson and general secretary Janardan Dwivedi dismissed Mr. Singh's letter to Mr. Hazare, saying, “After the Prime Minister's letter to Mr. Hazare, any further communication with him is not required…”
Is this is a sign of confusion within the party on how to deal with Team Anna? Or is there a strategy, with these “different” voices — some sharp, some soft — an intrinsic part of the Congress' laissez-faire leadership?
In the initial days, too, different voices were heard: while Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari took a strong line on Team Anna and was then forced to retract, party MPs Sanjay Nirupam and Priya Dutt — both representing constituencies in metropolitan Mumbai — actually came out in support of Mr. Hazare, for fear of annoying their constituents.
But now Team Anna is on the back foot: the physical attack on lawyer Prashant Bhushan was followed by Mr. Hazare denouncing his teammate's views on Kashmir; then there was ex-cop Kiran Bedi's bizarre explanation for cooking up bills, and the trustee of her NGO quitting as the whole episode has “damaged” his credibility, and Swami Agnivesh's attack on Arvind Kejriwal for being less than transparent with IAC's funds. Finally, core team members Rajendra Singh and P.V. Rajagopal quit, upset at the entry into the electoral arena. Indeed, on Saturday, Mr Hazare's core team is meeting to review the situation following these setbacks.
For the Congress, all this clearly represents an opportunity: especially since the record of the BJP, principal Opposition, has also been tarnished, forcing it to dump its Chief Ministers in Karnataka and Uttarakhand. Can the Congress seize the moment?
Can its efforts to divide IAC — separating good guy Hazare from the baddies who also double as key strategists in his team — work? Or are those strategists now also playing divide and rule, inspiring Mr. Hazare to differentiate between the “gang of four” in the government from the “righteous people” — Dr. Singh and Mr Khursheed?