Govt should engage Team Anna to move from the brink

 The government had already conceded, albeit tacitly, that Indian democracy had become so corrupt and criminalised that it was endangering its own future. It had also conceded that our parliamentarians, bureaucrats and police would never reform themselves. It had therefore admitted that it needed  the help of civil society to save democracy and safeguard India’s future.

After three months of negotiations, the joint drafting committee had narrowed the areas of disagreement down to a handful. But the handful contained  two demands that the government could not concede. These were the inclusion of the prime minister and the judiciary within the purview of the Lokpal. On both these issues Anna Hazare and his colleagues were just plainly in the wrong.

 The prime minister cannot be brought under the Lokpal’s jurisdiction because he or she is the fountainhead of executive power in parliamentary  democracy. An investigation of his conduct on charges of corruption could paralyse the state and put it in grave danger.
A temporary stand-in would fare only a little better for his cabinet colleagues would see little gain in cooperating with him. In short, the logic of power is different from that of representation. Once given up, it cannot, indeed must not be reclaimed.  

The same failure underlies the demand to allow the Lokpal to investigate complaints against the judiciary. If the Lokpal has the power to prosecute then some other body must have the power to adjudicate. That other body must be totally independent of the Lokpal if  justice is not to be turned into a joke. This pre-requisite would be violated  If the judiciary is brought under the Lokpal.

The need for placing limits on the Lokpal’s powers of investigation and prosecution should therefore have been obvious. But even the most sincere and idealistic of movements often develops a lunatic fringe. Anna and his colleagues’ most serious mistake has been to let this lunatic fringe take control of their agenda and repeatedly push them into making demands that the government cannot, responsibly, concede.

Bigger mistake

But if Anna made a mistake, the government has made a much bigger one. Four months ago it agreed to his demands and set up the joint committee to redraft the Lokpal bill. Two months ago it again allowed Anna to hold a one-day fast, but asked him only to do so at  Rajghat instead of Jantar Mantar.

Now after pushing him into Tihar jail for three days, it has allowed Anna to hold his fast at the Ramlila grounds, which is bound to incite passions. Thus after progressively winning over the moderates and weakening the radicals within the civil society movement, the government has pushed them back together again and bestowed victory upon the latter.

 In parliament  Manmohan Singh defended the government’s action on the grounds that Anna had become impervious to reason and was determined to impose the Jan Lokpal bill not only upon the committee, but also parliament. This may indeed have been Anna’s intention and if it was, the government’s predicament was an unenviable one. But if Anna wanted to press his demands with a fast unto death, he had the awesome tradition of Mahatma Gandhi behind him and was therefore well within his rights to do so.

The government’s duty ended with trying, yet again, to make him see reason, and conceding as many of his demands as possible to make him give up his fast. But keeping him alive was not its duty alone. It was also Anna’s duty to himself and his cause. Above all  it was his colleagues duty as well. If, after achieving nine-tenths of their goal they were prepared to allow Anna to die rather than give up the other ten percent, then they would qualify not as reformers but as fanatics and be judged by the public accordingly.

By jumping the gun and taking him to prison the government aborted the process of consensus building just as it was about to reach its fruition. What is worse, had good sense not prevailed belatedly on Tuesday evening, when Anna was sought to be released from Tihar jail, Monday’s events would have started a chain reaction of unintended consequences that would have forced the country ever closer to authoritarian rule. That danger has not yet passed entirely. Only cool nerves, self restraint and a renewed communication with Anna and his colleagues, and the wider public, can restore the democratic process and the public’s shaken confidence in the government.

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