Indian Decade

Gandhi Outfoxing Hazare?

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Indian Decade

Gandhi Outfoxing Hazare?

Sonia Gandhi and the UPA government looks like they’re pushing back against campaigner Anna Hazare.

The balance of power between the United Progressive Alliance government and activist Anna Hazare looks like it might be changing – and drastically. Gone, it seems, are the days when the Congress would crawl when Hazare asked it to.

The apparent shift in the party’s attitude toward him was highlighted in a short letter by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi on June 19, written in response to a three-page letter Hazare wrote to her on June 9.

Sonia said nothing new in her response, but the tone of her reply is in stark contrast with the sugar and honey approach of her April 19 letter to Hazare. This time, Sonia was far more abrupt, not even properly apologizing for her late response. She did tell Hazare that her late response was because she was ‘out of station.’ What she didn’t add was that this was because she was in Italy.

She was also dismissive of the displeasure Hazare expressed over Congress leaders calling him the face of the BJP-RSS. Her single-sentence response to Hazare’s complaint was: ‘As far as the questions raised by you in the letter, I have already clarified my stand in the previous letter dated on 19 April.’ Nowhere did she assure Hazare that she would rein in her party colleagues.

Tellingly, Sonia wrote her latest letter in her capacity as chair of the National Advisory Council (NAC) and not as Congress president. Why? Well, with the anti-corruption Lokpal bill high on the agenda of the NAC, she appears to be signalling to Hazare that Lokpal is the government’s brainchild, not his.

Meanwhile, on June 19, on the eve of the bill’s joint drafting committee meeting, the Congress held its third brainstorming session in as many days to firm up strategy in dealing with the issue, as well as Hazare’s threat to resume his fast from August 16 if parliament doesn’t enact the Lokpal legislation to his satisfaction.

The Congress and the government’s strategy is threefold: (i) Complete the draft of the bill by June 30, with or without civil society input; (ii) Make minor concessions to civil society leaders without overly bothering about threats from Team Anna; (iii) Introduce the Lokpal bill in parliament at the first available opportunity and let Team Anna deal with parliament, a far trickier arrangement for civil society.

Hazare is said to be fully aware of the challenge he now faces. If he follows up on his threatened fast despite warnings from supporters like Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde  – one of the five civil society members on the Lokpal panel, and who has opposed Hazare’s plans to resume his fast – then Hazare risks his movement going awry. With this in mind, he may soften his stance a bit, ask his colleagues on the Lokpal panel to stop spouting off, and try to coax the government into making as many concessions to civil society as they amicably can.

There is, though, no question of the government agreeing to demands to bring the prime minister into the ambit of the Lokpal bill, something Congress leaders have been very clear on. It remains to be seen whether Hazare will adjust himself accordingly, or whether he will continue to be driven by some of his more combustible colleagues. 

At the end of the day, the government has repeatedly told Team Anna to respect the political process and not undermine parliament’s dignity and power. Once the Lokpal bill is introduced in parliament, the government has no control over its fate, and so it can’t be faulted if its legislation misses Hazare’s August 16 deadline. The bill will then have become the property of parliament, meaning only elected lawmakers have a right to deal with it. This is the political process that the government has been reminding Team Anna about. And this is the crux of the Congress and government strategy.