Guess who's the real 'dictator': Not Team Anna, but Sonia
It has become fashionable among parliamentarians of all hues to hyperventilate about the "dictatorial attitude" of Team Anna for its refusal to compromise on the core tenets of a strong anti-corruption agency.
The hyperbolic Mani Shankar Aiyar went into paroxysms of rage the other day on prime-time television and ranted about the obduracy of Team Anna, whom he branded the "Frankenstein's monster". Lalu Prasad Yadav's methods were different – he played the court jester's role to perfection in his speech in Parliament – but he too portrayed Team Anna as the Great Dictator who was holding parliament to ransom.
Lalu expanded on that theme in a television interview to Shekhar Gupta. "I am not a dictator," he claimed. "But his (Anna Hazare's) team… looks like confirmed dictators… Team Anna wants a lock put on parliament. But it is our (MPs') duty to guard it."
Even the tone of media commentaries has over time changed to one of weariness with the "inflexibility" of Team Anna and its perceived resort to "extremist", "moral absolutist" methods in pressing for a strong Lokpal bill.
With Anna preparing for his third round of fast even as parliament is set to debate the Lokpal Bill – and Sachin Tendulkar takes guard in Melbourne in his quest for his 100th century! – 'Anna ennui' is setting in among many journalists.
Some of this is deliberate myth-making intended in some ways to discredit the popular movement for a strong Lokpal. As anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal explains in an interview to NDTV, to claim that Team Anna is resorting to an absolutist "my way or the highway" approach is "a wrong accusation."
Tracing the course that the campaign for a Lokpal Bill had taken from the time it was first drafted by Team Anna in December 2010, he says:
"After that this bill, through several public consultations, several seminars, several meetings, has gone through 14 versions. And if you see the latest version and compare it to the first one, it has completely undergone a change. And we are still seeking suggestions from the people. There were 3,000 suggestions that we got from the website itself. We've incorporated many of these suggestions."
Given the admirable flexibility of approach that Team Anna had exhibited and its readiness to incorporate well-meaning suggestions, it is "completely wrong" to say that Team Anna was unbudging and resorting to an extremist attitude of "either this bill or no other bill"." If anybody was guilty of adopting a "my way or the highway approach," he said, it was the government, which, now having tabled some form of a Lokpal Bill, remains impervious to suggestions to remedy its failings.
Of failings, the Lokpal Bill as tabled in parliament has plenty. The Hindu notes in a punchy editorial that the Bill represents a case of "one step forward, two steps back."
The bill, it says, is "nothing less than a betrayal of national trust. It is inexcusable that a Bill, substantially weaker than the August 2011 version… has been tabled." If the intention was to create a "strong, effective, and credible mechanism to go after corruption, especially political corruption," the key provisions of the new bill "mock that purpose."
It is to highlight these deficiencies in the bill in the hope that parliament will fix them that Team Anna has reignited its campaign. To say that this is a manifestation of an unyielding "dictatorial" attitude is utter fallacy, which only takes attention away from the bill's failings that need to be addressed.
In the ultimate analysis, Team Anna does not have the power of a "dictator" because it does not have the muscle to get bills passed: all it can do is to pitch for and advocate for a strong Lokpal Bill, and its interventions are limited to that. If anything, the power to get bills rammed through by railroading all opposition lies elsewhere – with Sonia Gandhi – and that power is being wilfully abused.
As Open magazine's political editor Hartosh Singh Bal points out, the manner in which Sonia Gandhi rammed the Food Security Bill through the Cabinet, silencing critics of the Bill within the selfsame Cabinet, "is at least as problematic" as the debate over the Lokpal Bill.
It's true that Sonia Gandhi, as the elected leader of the largest party in parliament, has earned the right to influence legislation, but does it give her the right to steamroll legitimate criticism – even within the Cabinet – to get the bill through, without even addressing any of these concerns meaningfully? The doubts about the Food Security Bill go to the core of its being: it isn't at all sure that foodgrains of the magnitude that the scheme envisages can be procured, or that the economy can sustain the fiscal burden.
Yet, at Sonia Gandhi's imperious intervention, these objections have been suppressed to get the bill to breeze through the Cabinet.
"When Sonia Gandhi rides roughshod over serious objections for the sake of a few state elections looming ahead, we see an abdication of governance far more severe than in the Lokpal Bill's case," says Bal.
On the one hand, you have a popular movement that doesn't have any legislative power, which is banging its head against the walls of parliament to seek to influence lawmakers, but has failed miserably thus far – to the point where the Lokpal Bill that is now in parliament is a weak one. In their defence, Team Anna members at least present themselves in public and make their case for a stronger Lokpal Bill.
On the other hand, you have a Rajmata who has her regal way by trampling legitimate criticism from within her own government and gets a fiscally ruinous bill rammed through – and won't even appear in public to address the concerns relating to the bill.
Guess who is the real "dictator" here…