Indian Decade

The Politics of Fasting

India’s UPA government is mishandling the latest challenge posed by Anna Hazare and civil society.

The Anna Hazare time bomb has once again started ticking for the United Progressive Alliance government. The 72-year-old social activist has vowed to resume his fast—this time with a ‘Corruption Bharat Chhodo’ (Corruption, quit India) theme. The centrepiece of Team Anna’s agitation is once again the anti-graft Lokpal Bill. The Hazare camp now wants the government to withdraw its ‘toothless’ bill and replace it with one that civil society members have been gunning for—with the Prime Minister, the judiciary, and members of parliament coming under the ambit of the proposed legislation.

The UPA government has acted like a headless chicken in dealing with civil society. Its response has ranged from abject surrender to a brazen show of power as demonstrated in the Baba Ramdev episode. The government for its part has accused Hazare and Ramdev of acting on behalf of the Bhartiya Janta Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Whether or not this is true, the fact of the matter is that the government has made a mess of governing and its reputation.
Parliament should be the only forum to decide what the Lokpal Bill, or any other bill for that matter, should contain. If the majority view in parliament is that the prime minister, the judiciary, and MPs should come under the Lokpal’s ambit, the government should accept the decision gracefully and toe the line. A statement to this effect by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will send a strong message and take the wind out of Team Anna’s sails.

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But instead of watering the roots of the issue, the government is busy watering the leaves. It is engaging itself in a specious debate with Team Anna over whether the venue of their agitation from August 16 should be Jantar Mantar or some other part of Delhi. The government needs to announce a policy of protecting its national monuments, and a historic structure like Jantar Mantar needs to be protected from the melee of agitational politics, no matter who is organizing the agitation and for what cause.
Ultimately, Jantar Mantar needs to be protected from two things: (i) thousands of people thronging the iconic structure for days and (ii) terrorists using the occasion to gain maximum international publicity with minimum effort and planning. After all, how would the government respond if civil society decided to hold its next agitation at the Taj Mahal?