The right step would be for Manmohan Singh to visit Jantar Mantar without further loss of time to persuade the Gandhian to call off his fast, and also explore a compromise.
Jantar Mantar in New Delhi is a hot favourite of the average tourist in the summer season. As the temperatures soar this year, the monument is drawing even greater crowds, mainly to savour the electric atmosphere generated by a 72-year-old school drop-out from an indigent labour family of Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district. To say that Anna Hazare is a phenomenon is to state the obvious. The spot he has chosen in the heart of the national capital for his fast-unto-death action is not far from Parliament, which in his eyes stands wholly discredited. The numbers he has drawn till now have astonished the whole nation.
Despite glib words of praise for the principle that motivates Anna, there is unmistakable chagrin among those in the corridors of power — whom he is challenging. They claim that they alone are vested with the authority to decide what kind of legislation should be drafted to tackle corruption in high places, and not the likes of Anna Hazare. They look upon him as an usurper who has to be put in his place somehow.
There is a growing feeling that those in South Block and North Block are reading the situation wrongly. They seem to assume that if they hold on for just a few more days, the gutsy man would wilt and the common person would forget that such a protest ever happened. Interesting days are therefore ahead in the battle against the kind of corruption that has come to envelop the country.
During a television debate in which I took part this week, one person in the clued-up audience said it would be better to go to jail rather than live in a ‘free' India that has been soiled by the ugly contours of dishonesty in public life. Such is the desperation in the mind of the citizen who has now to pay for every service to which he or she is entitled free of cost as a law abiding and taxpaying citizen. Many of my friends abroad ask why the harassed Indian has not yet risen in revolt, but is taking the situation lying down. It is difficult to respond to the question meaningfully.
Things seem to be changing, however, with Anna's arrival on the scene. While I would not like to exaggerate his impact, I will not underrate him either — as many in authority in Delhi would seem to be doing. Anna could prove to be the Pied Piper who will be remembered for many years, and the undoing of many who currently enjoy power despite their dubious reputation. Anna has already claimed one scalp in the form of the Agriculture Minister, who chose to exit from the Group of Ministers charged with the task of drafting the Lokpal bill. Others may follow. The point is that Anna is no longer inconsequential as many had thought before he launched his satyagraha on April 5.
Some people are critical of the way Anna has given no options to the powers-that-be. He is described as obstinate and impractical. In particular, many legal pundits, of the likes of Harish Salve, are apprehensive that he is derailing and hijacking the democratic process while trying to do good for the nation. The suggestion is that no one, however mighty he or she may be, can be allowed to subvert or bypass the democratic institutions in which law-making authority is vested by the Constitution. This stand is, however, blind to the very rationale for Anna taking to the streets with his case. In his view, the track record of all legislators is poor and they have betrayed the trust reposed in them by the electorate. He is convinced that left to themselves the law-makers will continue to hoodwink the public through their tokenism in the struggle against corruption — a criticism that is based on the weak Lokpal bill that the government has framed.
Anna and those around him, such as Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, point out how the Jan Lokpal bill has vastly improved upon the official Lokpal bill, offering hope for drastic action being taken against bribe-takers. To be specific, the civil society bill will cover bureaucrats and judges also, in addition to the Prime Minister, Ministers and Members of Parliament. It will not be a hollow, toothless recommendatory body as the one that is envisaged by the official bill. It will go far beyond that and function as a prosecuting agency, with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) being a part of it.
Despite Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal's appeal that the situation should not degenerate into a ‘they' vs. ‘us' confrontation, the fact remains that it has become one. There are certainly two parties to the issue, and neither is relenting. Anna Hazare says he had written several times on the subject to the Prime Minister, without any response. This is why he had no alternative but to go on a fast, just as the Mahatma did while fighting the alien ruler. The government, mainly in the form of Mr. Sibal, believes it cannot abdicate its absolute authority, and cannot cave in to the pressure that strikes at the roots of the Constitution.
Amid this wrangling, there is a definite danger to Anna's life. You are not dealing here with a young person, and a 72-year-old individual has limited physical reserves. There does not seem to be a full appreciation of the risks involved. If it is the government's assessment that even in the worst case scenario there is no possibility of a popular uprising because Anna is a political lightweight, my feeling is that the government is being unethical and is playing with fire. If the government believes that Anna is being unreasonable in seeking to pressure constitutional authority, in a way that will also be tantamount to disrespecting the Father of the Nation. It will, in the process, discountenance whatever the Mahatma stood for.
It will therefore be advisable for the Prime Minister to bundle up enough courage and handle the situation himself, instead of depending on those around him. The right step would be for Dr. Manmohan Singh to visit Jantar Mantar without further loss of time in order to persuade Anna to call off his fast, and also explore a compromise. The two men have many things in common, including a belief in the fundamental values of probity and civility in interpersonal relationships. If they cannot do the trick, nothing else will.
Finally, Anna's demand for a robustly independent investigating agency strikes a chord in many of us who have been demanding autonomy for the CBI, which remains an appendage of the executive to be manipulated at will by it. If the CBI has done reasonably well in investigating the 2G spectrum scam, it is because of the power derived from the court monitoring the process. How many cases can the courts thus keep track of and give genuine apolitical supervision?
India undoubtedly needs an Ombudsman of the kind Anna is demanding. This has worked very well in many parts of the globe, especially in Europe. Call it by any name, including the Independent Commission against Corruption of Hong Kong, a truly strong Ombudsman is badly needed in India at the present juncture, when the country's image has received an unparalleled beating. India is now a laughing stock in the comity of nations. Right-thinking people, drawing inspiration from Anna Hazare, can definitely bring about a turnaround. We owe this to this country's future generations.
(Dr. R.K. Raghavan is a former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.)