By B. Raman
What one saw on the morning of April 9, 2011, when social activist Anna Hazare broke his fast unto death after the Government of India accepted his demands relating to the enactment of legislation to set up an independent institutional mechanism to deal with corruption was the end of the initial tactical phase of this confrontation between the Government and a group of civil society activists and the beginning of the strategic phase.
The victory in the initial tactical skirmishes was with the civil society activists led by Anna Hazare. Confronted with a rapidly developing movement, which assumed the dimensions of a storm within four days of its start —aided by widespread anger and disgust over the perceived foot-dragging by the Government on the issue of action against those allegedly involved in serious cases of corruption– the Government of Dr.Manmohan Singh caved in and accepted all the demands in order to buy for itself time to recover from the surprise caused by the assertion of Youth Power on the issue and the emerging unity of action between social and student activists. This was a phenomenon that the Government had not anticipated.
The Government accepted the demands of the civil society coalition not because it was fully convinced that their demands are legitimate, but because it realised that having been taken totally by surprise, it had no other option but to concede their initial demands. It was a tactical concession to the view-point of the civil society coalition and not a strategic acceptance of it.
The Government’s decision to concede a tactical victory to the civil society coalition was based on two apparent calculations. Firstly, the unexpected coalition between the social and students, activists may not be durable and may break asunder with the flux of time. Secondly, once the coalition demobilises its fighters after its tactical victory it may find it difficult to re-mobilise them if another confrontation develops and this could give the necessary time to the Government to prepare itself for the next round. Histories of people’s movements often show that once they demobilise half-way, they find it difficult to re-mobilise. We are seeing this in Egypt now.
It would be unwise on the part of the Government to take advantage of the breather offered by the agreement on the setting-up of a joint committee of Government and civil society representatives in an attempt to create divisions within the civil society coalition. It could prove counter-productive and further weaken the credibility of the Government. The national movement against corruption spearheaded by Anna Hazare and the long chain of Government inactions on the issue of corruption that preceded it have clearly highlighted certain realities:
Firstly, there is anger and disgust in all sections of urban societies over the Government’s failure to act against corruption. Whether this anger has permeated to rural societies also would be seen from the results of the forthcoming elections in Tamil Nadu, the epi-centre of mega corruption, which did not see the kind of outpouring of support for the Anna Hazare movement that one saw in some other parts of India. One is likely to see an urban-rural divide in the fight against corruption. Can an urban movement alone succeed in the campaign against corruption if the rural masses do not support it? On the answer to this question would depend the future shape and direction of the movement. Secondly, large sections of society want not only action in individual cases of corruption, but also institutional changes to impart credibility and give teeth to the fight against corruption. Anna Hazare’s movement was for institutional changes and not in connection with the recently exposed individual cases but it was fueled by the public anger relating to the individual cases. If this anger relating to individual cases was not there, it is doubtful whether his movement would have gathered such a rapid momentum on the Jan Lok Pal issue alone.
It is important for the Government to re-establish its credibility in the eyes of the civil society. This will be possible only if it takes simultaneous action on both fronts, namely, individual cases and the setting-up of an independent institutional mechanism. The interest taken by the Supreme Court in monitoring the investigation in the individual cases obviates the need for the civil society coalition to activate itself on this issue. The Government will be mistaken if it thinks that it can take advantage of the breather to frustrate the efforts of the civil society coalition for a strong and really independent institutional mechanism.
Instead of indulging in such an unwise exercise of delay and dilution, it should take the lead in facilitating the quick completion of its tasks by the joint committee and in ensuring an early implementation of the proposal. If it has the wisdom to do so, it may be able to recover some of the ground lost by it on this issue because of its hitherto lethargic approach. The Government and civil society representatives in the committee should identify areas of convergence and divergence and initially approve the points of convergence. The goodwill created by such an exercise would make the task of dealing with the points of divergence easier.
Even now, there are many laws and regulations having a bearing on anti-corruption. If they are effectively implemented instances of corruption in both the Government and the civil society will decline. As examples, one could mention laws and regulations relating to submission of declaration by public servants regarding acquisition of property of certain value, payment of income-tax, acquisition of disproportionate assets, prevention of money-laundering etc There has been an increase in instances of corruption in both the Government and the civil society due to a failure to enforce these laws and regulations and punish those guilty of violating them. The Government should see that violations are no longer tolerated.
Anna Hazare himself is a man of established integrity and unimpeacheable credentials. One cannot say the same thing about some in his entourage. Those of us who were in Government service in the 1970s would remember the students’ agitation in a state over the alleged filing of a false declaration by one of those now close to Anna for getting admission to an issue in a central medical institution. The credibility of the movement would be enhanced further if such elements are identified and excluded.
It is important for the Government to work out a long-term strategy to reduce corruption. An exercise for this purpose can be initiated immediately by the Government on its own initiative without waiting for the joint committee to make progress in its work. Other civil society and students activists, who are not part of the Anna movement, should also be associated with it. The Government should maintain its leadership role in the fight against corruption. That is the only way of regaining its credibility. It is important for the Prime Minister to be more articulate on this subject and to interact frequently and vigorously with all sections of civil society and the media.
It would be difficult to quantify the extent of support received by the movement from the students. There was an orchestration of the coverage by all TV channels in order to create a dramatic impact on the minds of the viewers. They wittingly or unwittingly created an impression as if waves and waves of students were coming out to join the movement. Any careful viewer would have noticed that this was not so. It is important for the Government and the Congress (I) to interact more closely with those sections of the students who had kept away from the movement.
Co-operation with the civil society coalition headed by Anna Hazare in matters relating to the legislation and independent initiatives in other matters should be the over-all strategy of the Government.