By B. Raman
“It has to be admitted that there is considerable public support for Anna Hazare’s proposed fast because large sections of the public are not convinced of the sincerity of the Government’s proclaimed determination to end corruption. The executive responsibility of the Government to maintain law and order has not been matched by an exercise of its moral responsibility to convince the public of the sincerity of its determination to end corruption. It is important for the Prime Minister even at this last moment to address the public on the issue of corruption through the electronic media and through a press conference devoted exclusively to public concerns over corruption. An over-focus on the executive dimensions of the problem while neglecting the moral dimensions of it will maintain and exacerbate the existing tensions on this issue.” – Extract from my article of August 14, 2011, titled “ANNA HAZARE’S PROTEST AGAINST CORRUPTION”
With the Government and Team Anna Hazare reaching a reasonable compromise on Anna Hazare’s right to protest through a public fast on the need for a strong Jan Lok Pal Bill, the venue of the fast is expected to shift on August 19 from inside Tihar Jail, where Anna is presently fasting, to the Ramlila grounds.
The issue of the right to protest on which the public debate and concern had been concentrated since the unwise arrest and detention of Anna in the Tihar jail on August 16 has thus been sorted out with the Government conceding that while no right is absolute no curbs can be arbitrary. The issue of the Jan Lok Pal Bill will now regain prominence in the public debate in the days to come as Anna fasts in public. The focus of the public attention and concern will shift to the substantive issue of setting up a strong institutional mechanism to deal with the investigation and prosecution of complaints of corruption.
The debate on this substantive issue has till now been handled by the Government and the Congress (I) with a worrisome lack of finesse in thinking, an insensitivity to the public mood—-particularly to the mood of the youth— on this subject and an inadequate Prime Ministerial leadership and initiative in responding to the mood and expectations of the public.
All initiatives—often negative— have so far come from individual Ministers of the Cabinet such as Shri P. Chidambaram and Shri Kapil Sibal, with the Prime Minister hardly visible, articulate and leading the debate. The result: A totally negative mood in the country and a spreading disenchantment with the Government due to an impression that it is not serious on the substantive issue.
The large public support for Anna is an outcome of this negative mood and disenchantment. Meaningful and effective action against corruption is not just a political issue involving only the political class and the law-makers in the Parliament. It has become an important moral issue with the involvement of growing sections of the public in the debate and in the movement for action against corruption here and now spearheaded by Anna and his team. It is not the media, but public activism which has given strength to Anna and made him a contemporary icon.
This moral issue cannot be and should not be handled by purely smart and cunning tactics. A moral issue calls for a moral leadership, moral arguments, a moral perspective and a moral courage to take note of public expectations and respond to them to the extent possible.
The longer the Government and the Prime Minister give the impression of dragging their feet, the worse the issue and the atmosphere in the country is going to become. It is time for the Prime Minister to shed his reticence and fear of assuming leadership and take over the responsibility for responding to public expectations.
The atmosphere in the country, which is depressingly negative, has to be converted into positive. One cannot do so unless one starts looking upon those calling for action against corruption not as political adversaries acting at the behest of the ill-wishers of the Government, but as moral allies in the campaign to rid the country of this evil.
There is need for a new strategy, which will have a judicious mix of the political and the moral. This strategy should make an immediate impact on the minds of Team Anna and the sections of the public supporting it and restore the political and moral initiative to the Prime Minister.
For this purpose, it is important for the Prime Minister to announce the withdrawal from the Parliament of the Jan Lok Pal Bill submitted by the Government in view of the dissatisfaction with it by large sections of the public and the initiation of renewed consultations with Team Anna as well as others in order to find ways of accommodating their demands to the extent possible and reasonable.
The Prime Minister should also announce that this will be a time-bound exercise to produce results satisfactory to the public and not delaying tactics to continue to avoid action. Since the Parliament is now in the midst of its monsoon session, the Prime Minister cannot make this announcement in public. He has to do so before the Parliament.
Even while taking these initiatives, the Prime Minister should have a post-mortem of the mishandling of the issue of the right to protest which has undoubtedly caused a loss of face for the Government. The post-mortem will most probably bring out that the various options available to the Government in the face of the determination of Anna to go on fast and their legal, political and moral implications were not examined in detail by the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs and the Secretaries Committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary. The whole issue was handled in a shockingly casual and lackadaisical manner resulting in the present loss of face for the Government.
The lessons drawn from the post-mortem should be accepted without reservation and care taken to ensure that similar mistakes are not committed in future. The present style of political management has been marked by a lack of transparency and wide consultations and a reluctance to share with the public the Government’s perceptions and views on issues of national importance. It is also characterised by a distrust of the media.
This style has to change and this distrust has to be discarded. All these call for bold decisions from the Prime Minister.