The rise of Aam Aadmi

The political and official classes were ready to bend backwards to extend huge largesse to business houses in an arbitrary fashion.

The anti-corruption crusade launched by Anna Hazare and his associates three years ago, which received unprecedented public support, may not have achieved its stated objective of getting the Lokpal bill passed by Parliament, but this first mass movement of its kind in a long time, is clearly showing its impact in myriad other ways which bodes well for Indian democracy.

While the entrenched political class continues to resist any sort of changes that will challenge its hegemony, the other institutions like the Supreme Court, the Election Commission of India, the Central Vigilance Commission and the Central Information Commission, to name a few, have begun to assert their powers in public interest, which is indeed heartening.

One of the more worrying aspects of our democracy over the last two decades or so was the increasing criminalisation of politics. As political leaders began to openly hobnob with the criminals, unmindful of public opinion, morality went out of the window and the criminals found politics to be a safe haven for everyone concerned. Political parties saw nothing wrong in giving party tickets to candidates with criminal record, which resulted in almost one-third of our elected representatives coming from dubious background.

The Supreme Court delivered the first big blow to this ‘cosy arrangement’ by declaring that clause 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act that provided protection to criminals in the legislatures as unconstitutional and ordering immediate removal of those who had been found guilty and sentenced to two years or more in jail.

Instead of accepting the verdict in right spirit, the shocked political establishment began to search for ways of skirting the law. Political parties which bickered endlessly on the demand for constitution of a Lokpal and eventually scuttled the move, wasted no time in supporting the UPA government’s proposal for an ordinance to overturn the SC order.
There were no prizes for guessing that the initiative came from former Bihar strongman, Lalu Prasad, who, facing criminal charges for the last 17 years, sniffed imminent danger and goaded his comrades-in-arms to act quickly. But fortunately, first, President Pranab Mukherjee and later, Rahul Gandhi, sensed the public mood and shamed (hopefully!) the government to backtrack.

The Congress’ Rajya Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh, Rasheed Masood, facing conviction in a medical seat scam, became the first MP to face the guillotine as Vice-President and Rajya Sabha chairman, Hameed Ansari quickly showed Masood the door. When it came to acting against fodder scamsters Lalu Prasad and Jagadish Sharma, Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar dithered on the advice that she should uphold the ‘supremacy’ of Parliament, but the attorney general, G E Vahanvati disabused her of any such notion. Lalu Prasad and Sharma have not only been disqualified from Lok Sabha, but on conviction, they have been sent to jail.

Put a lid

In other hot button cases, the UPA government has managed to put a lid on the Rs 1.76 lakh crore 2G scam – mysteriously, the courts also have gone silent on this issue for almost a year – but equally scandalous Coalgate scam is now hogging all the attention, thanks to a proactive Supreme Court. Caught in a pincer between the government and the court, the CBI has filed 17 FIRs in the case so far, but it is yet to make any arrests.

The filing of FIR against former Union coal secretary P C Parakh and Hindalco company promoter and industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla has set the cat among the pigeons. Parakh, who headed the coal allotment screening committee and had rejected Hindalco’s application for Talabira II mine in Odisha—earmarked for a public sector company—later reversed his decision after some nudging from the prime minister’s office and Birla himself allegedly showed up in his office.

There is a remarkable similarity between the allocation of spectrum and coal -- the UPA government’s two ‘high value’ scandals. In both  instances, the political and official classes were ready to bend backwards to extend huge largesse to the business houses in an arbitrary fashion. The naming of K M Birla in the FIR has been openly criticised by a couple of ministers, finance minister P Chidambaram has gone out of the way to grant an audience to Birla to hear his ‘grievance,’ the prime minister himself has gone on record to say that the allotment was made on ‘merit.’ Pray, why all this kow-towing when the investigation is on and the court is seized of the issue? If the minister is worried about the impact of the case on investment climate, that worry should be directed at the non-transparent policy rather than the naming of an industrialist in the CBI complaint.

Coal secretary Parakh’s assertion that the CBI should have named the prime minister as well in the FIR as he took the final decision on coal allocation has reached Manmohan Singh, who has belatedly reacted saying he ‘was not above the law’ and that he was ready for questioning by the CBI or anyone or else. Having tried to distance himself from all controversies, it is the nearest that Manmohan Singh has come to own up some responsibility.

One other front where the political leaders are at odds with public opinion is the decision to challenge the CIC’s order bringing political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act. A bill to amend the RTI is before Parliament, but advocate general Vahanvati has cautioned a parliamentary committee examining the bill that it would be imprudent to shield political parties from some amount of public scrutiny. Whether the Netas will listen to this legal advice remains to be seen.

Finally, the surprising fact that Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party is tipped to win some seats in Delhi Assembly elections upsetting both the Congress and the BJP is a clear indication that Anna Hazare’s fasts have not been in vain and winds of change have hit the national capital. Can the rest of the country be far behind?

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