How UPA bungled on Anna
Embedded in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s get-well-soon message to Anna Hazare, who is recuperating in a Gurgaon hospital, was a tacit admission by the UPA government that Gandhians should be won over with flowers, not force.
A witch hunt has already begun in the government and the Congress party on who bungled on Anna, but the answer is not at all complicated and does not lie on the doorsteps of the legal luminaries in power. The fact is that the UPA government and the Congress had forgotten to handle one of their own — a Gandhian.
To understand the state of play one has to go back to the Congress Core Group meeting in the first week of August to decide what the response should be to Anna’s warning that he would go on a hunger strike from August 16 in demand for implementation of the Jan Lokpal Bill.
While the PM over-ruled Team Anna’s demand that they be allowed to protest at Ramlila Maidan on grounds of communal sensitivities, the apex group decided that the activist be allowed to fast as much as he wants and lifted to a hospital in case of a life-threatening condition.
The meeting broke up with all convinced that the government and Parliament could not be held hostage by Anna, as giving into one Gandhian once would lead to a permanent headache for the rulers. However, the situation changed at the Cabinet Committee of Political Affairs (CCPA) meeting on August 11 as Anna Hazare movement started to gain traction.
Contrary to public perception, it was decided at this meeting by both the PM and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee that Anna should only be allowed to fast for just three days despite being told in the meeting that this was a harder line and that the Gandhian would reject this demand.
The position of other CCPA members was : Farooq Abdullah advocated the hard line; Sharad Pawar, Azhagiri, AK Antony kept quiet; P Chidambaram warned that Anna may not accept the government’s offer and new entrant Kapil Sibal said that Anna should not be allowed to fast within Central Delhi but on the outskirts of the city like Burari. To which Sibal was reminded that Team Anna had already rejected Burari, Ajmal Khan Park and a park in South Delhi. He was told that Team Anna was negotiating on either Samtha Sthal or JP Park near the Indian Fleet Street.
At this point, the CCPA discussed whether Anna could be picked up on August 16 and flown to PGI hospital in Chandigarh. The answer was that Anna could only be sent back to his state Maharashtra and then to his village Ralegan Siddh. The CCPA then asked Sharad Pawar to check up with Maharashtra home minister RR Patil. Separately, chief minister Prithviraj Chauhan was approached by the UPA on the same issue.
Thus, the critical CCPA ended with the UPA firm on not allowing Anna to fast more than three days in Central Delhi. Inbuilt into the CCPA discussion was the confidence that Anna would back down in the face off with the State and its law enforcement agencies. This was a strategic mistake and foundation for Anna’s victory had been laid.
On a rainy August 15, sincere Manmohan Singh made a plea to the nation that his government was committed to fight corruption but did not have a magic wand to wish it away. Without taking Anna’s name, the speech was directed at him with the assurance that the UPA would root out corruption. But all that fell on deaf ears and the Delhi Police withdrew the JP Park permission given to Team Anna. A police team reached Mayur Vihar in east Delhi to warn Anna that he would be violating the law.
The police was forced to take this step as neither RR Patil, according to Pawar, nor Prithviraj Chauhan were willing to take Anna back in Maharashtra at that moment.
Now Anna is no Ramdev or Swami Agnivesh and he candidly admitted to Delhi Police that he would violate the law. The Gandhian spoke the truth and made it clear that he was not afraid to go to Tihar Jail. To complicate matters further an executive magistrate remanded him to seven days in judicial custody.
Between 4.00pm to 6.00pm on August 16, the telephone wires burnt between North Block and Prime Minister’s Office as both the PM and home minister realised that seven days was a bit too much. It was at this time that the Delhi Police Commissioner BK Gupta was told to move a counter application and withdraw charges in effect against Anna. But the Gandhian again outwitted them by refusing to move out of jail and thus becoming the fulcrum of the anti-corruption movement sweeping among the Indian masses.
The fact is despite the writing on the wall that the UPA was facing a fearless activist in Anna, the Manmohan Singh government still tried to run rough shod over the movement as was evident from PM’s statement to Parliament on August 17.
The statement was apparently intended to be more hardline but his key advisors prevailed. While the government fumbled on and the movement gathered steam, the truth dawned on PM on Sunday morning of August 21 as he summoned all the top officials of his government. It is at this moment that Singh realised the gravity of the situation and he aptly summed up by castigating key PMO officials for not keeping him directly informed.
It is from this moment that the PM realised the power of the Gandhian and took the matters in his hands directly and resolved the issue within a week by bringing Parliament on his side. While many in the government believe that Anna’s movement is over, the PM knows that it has only begun as the re-energised Gandhian will fight for what he believes is just cause to the end.