Digvijay Singh denies he is indulging in a smear campaign against Bhushans

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Congress is trying to seize the moral high ground on the Lokpal Bill, with the government focusing on framing a strong bill with its civil society partners, leaving Congress leaders free to comment on any accusations made about the latter.

On Friday, emerging from a core group meeting at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's residence here, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee told journalists, “Controversies have been raised about some members of the joint Lokpal Bill committee. But in the view of the government as well as [of] the party [Congress], the working of the committee will not in any way be affected by these controversies.”

In fact, he stressed, “The government members are looking forward to working with Anna Hazare and his colleagues to draft a strong and sound Lokpal Bill to fight corruption.”

Simultaneously, at the Congress headquarters, party general secretary Digvijay Singh, who has been in the eye of the storm, denied there was any “gag order” by the party on him. He was not indulging in a smear campaign against lawyers Shanti and Prashant Bhushan, he said, only raising issues already in the public domain. He had not questioned Justice Santosh Hegde's integrity; rather he was questioning the system in which a person of Justice Hegde's credentials working with what is acknowledged to be a strong Lokayukta Act was not as effective as he should have been. “I am questioning the system,” Mr. Singh said, adding “not Justice Hegde's integrity.”

He also said the government had taken the Lokpal Bill very seriously — it could have picked up Mr. Hazare and put him in hospital; instead, the government formed a joint committee, with Mr. Hazare as a member.

The two statements – from Mr. Mukherjee and Mr. Singh – came a few hours after the two men had met to discuss the issue.

Having failed to anticipate that Mr. Hazare's fast-unto-death, earlier this month, would galvanise civil society, the government — and party — are now working overtime to ensure that they, rather than civil society representatives, get the credit for the Lokpal Bill.

When Mr. Hazare met the Prime Minister on March 7, he had informed him of his decision to go on a fast on April 5 if the Jan Lokpal Bill was not accepted, or a joint committee not set up by then. A senior party leader had told The Hindu that he had offered to talk to Mr. Hazare at that time to try and sort out the issue, but the Prime Minister, was counselled by his PMO advisers not to surrender to the social activist, and that, if he actually went on fast, he could just be bundled off to hospital. It was also felt that as Sonia Gandhi's National Advisory Council (NAC) was working on a tough Lokpal Bill in consultation with Mr. Hazare's colleagues, there was little to worry about.

Later, when Mr. Hazare's fast received unprecedented support, the government and party were taken aback. It was then that Ms. Gandhi, according to senior party sources, said Mr. Hazare needed to be removed from Jantar Mantar at any cost, and so the government agreed to form a joint committee.

Now, the party feels that if it has been put in the dock on the issue of corruption, then those who are attacking them must be held to the same high standards. Indeed, though Ms. Gandhi has written to Mr. Hazare saying she doesn't believe in the politics of smear campaigns, she adds a gentle reprimand. A party MP pointed out, “Ms. Gandhi has contextualised her comment by pointing out that the NAC was already drafting the Lokpal Bill. She doesn't say it explicitly but she is clearly indicating there was no need to jump the gun and begin an agitation on the issue.”