It was a Lokfarce

The Midnight Drama

Team Anna committed a tactical blunder, and the politicians of all hues thought this was an opportunity to get off the noose.

Disgusting!  That was the thought running through the minds of millions of people watching the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha live in their homes on Thursday night, as the House of Elders debated for over 12 hours the contentious Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill 2011 and concluded the farcical drama around midnight, without reconciling their differences. Now, it is back to square one and the 42-year-long wait for a “strong” Lokpal will get a little longer.

The UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and the government’s nominal head Manmohan Singh have to take a major share of the blame for the absolute fiasco, though it was apparent that every single political party had its own agenda for scuttling the constitution of a credible anti-corruption body. Publicly, they all swore by a strong Lokpal, but when the time came to find a median to narrow their differences and vote on it, every one conveniently ganged up to put off the decision.

 Gandhian Anna Hazare and his team, who relentlessly pushed the government over the last eight months on the Lokpal bill, were roundly criticized by many people for renewing their agitation even when Parliament was seized of the matter.

A common refrain was that the parliamentarians should be given an opportunity to do their ‘duty’ without external coercion. But, now we know for sure that the parliamentarians were never serious and concocted enough excuses not to have the bill passed. Anna’s cynical approach has been vindicated and the politicians stand naked before the nation.

Recall the prime minister’s assurance to Parliament and in writing to Anna Hazare last August when he undertook a 12-day fast that the government was committed to bringing the Lokpal bill including three specific demands made by Anna, in the winter session of Parliament. The standing committee of Parliament worked overtime to come up with a bill, which was substantially modified by the Union cabinet.

The back channel negotiations with the principal Opposition, the BJP and Team Anna led to the inclusion of the prime minister under the ambit of Lokpal, considerable independent powers to the Lokpal to investigate corruption charges against all government employees, confiscation of their ill-gotten wealth and so on. The only major sticking point was that the government was not willing let go the administrative control of the CBI, but offered its services to Lokpal to look into specific complaints.

Though far from perfect, the country was ready to accept a half-measure where none existed. That was the reason why a lot of people were cut up with Hazare for announcing a three-day fast, followed by a jail bharo call, when Parliament was still grappling with the bill.

Indulging in politicking
But, in hindsight, it is clear that the government was biding its time and continuously indulging in politicking. A number of precious days were lost as the Opposition found one issue or the other to disrupt the Houses and the government showed no urgency to bring forward the bill. At the eleventh hour, as Anna’s pressure mounted, the government decided on introducing the bill and extending the Parliament session.

The grumbling, grumpy political class felt compelled to work overtime and the government’s principal trouble-shooter Pranab Mukherjee held a serious of backroom negotiations with the Opposition leaders to arrive at a broad consensus. The government accepted a number of amendments, worked out a ‘deal’ with the BSP, SP and others to stage a walkout to ensure the passage of the bill in the Lok Sabha, though it could not get the Constitution amendment bill passed, thanks to its poor floor management.

But, around the time, the news filtered in that Anna Hazare’s fast had evoked poor response in Mumbai and at other places. It was a ‘game changer.’  Having relentlessly put the government on the defensive, the Team Anna had committed a tactical blunder, both in terms of the timing of the fast and the choice of venue. The cunning politicians of all hues instantly calculated that the people were ‘tired’ of Anna and this was an opportunity to get off the noose.

The government deliberately delayed the introduction of the bill in the Rajya Sabha by a day and the proceedings on Thursday was a well-orchestrated drama which meandered according to a script well past midnight, with Manmohan Singh acting his ‘mouni baba’ role to perfection.

Another ‘actor,’ RJD MP Rajniti Prasad (how appropriately named!), who was required to snatch the bill copy from minister V Naranayanaswamy’s hands and throw it into the well of the House, was so clumsy in his role that he had to be ‘helped’ by another minister Ashwin Kumar, getting up from his seat right behind! Funnily, there was an embarrassing gap in the ‘final scene’ and the House was adjourned for 15 minutes, before Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari brought the farce to a close, with the members standing up to the strains of ‘Vande Matharam.’

The nation watched dumbfounded.

 The usual blame game between the government and the Opposition has begun and it will most probably be carried into the elections of five state Assemblies, including Uttar Pradesh, being held in about two months. The coming Budget session of Parliament is unlikely to take up the Lokpal bill again and for all practical purposes it has gone into a limbo.

But if the politicians think that the Anna wave has passed and the people are no longer concerned about a strong Lokpal, they will be sadly mistaken. There is a palpable anger among the public about the ‘deceitful games’ of politicians and the next round of agitation, with or without Anna, will be a tsunami, whose effect on Indian polity cannot be imagined now. The demand for Lokpal has to go hand in hand with electoral reforms and that is something the civil society will definitely have to keep in mind.

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