Integrally indefinite!

For the first time ever, I have found myself agreeing with a BJP leader. When Arun Jaitley said in the Rajya Sabha that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s troubles came from the fact that he was being advised by far too many lawyers, he unerringly hit the nail on the head. None of those lawyers shows any political instincts and it is true that situations like Anna Hazare’s fast in New Delhi cannot be treated simply as a problem of policing.

I wonder who decided that Hazare should be picked up from his residence even before he had set out on his fast or actually broken a law. After all, even the British waited until Mahatma Gandhi had actually reached the sea shore after his Dandi March to make (and break the) salt (law) before swinging into action. I must add, Gandhi’s Dandi March was actually against an unjust law while Hazare’s fast is merely a childish insistence on ‘my way or nothing’ – rather like a little girlie saying she will not eat her dal and rice until Mommie had bought/ brought her the dollie she wanted – aimed more at self-aggrandisement than anything else. But all of what has happened this past week makes me believe that Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh was right about Union Home Minister P Chidambaram all along – that he is intellectually arrogant and problems like these (though Singh said it in the context of the Naxal violence) cannot merely be treated as a law and order issue.

Much is being made of the government’s climb down over Anna Hazare (that had to happen, didn’t it?) and I believe their embarrassment is well deserved. The UPA needlessly turned a man with low understanding of what the jan lokpal bill actually is (unsustainable and a potential Frankenstein’s monster) into a hero. As has been said before, most people were coming round to believing that Team Anna was wrong in its insistence on including draconian and untenable sections in the law that would destroy our democratic institutions and that they could not usurp the powers of parliament unto themselves.

However, government foolhardiness turned the debate into a struggle for freedom of expression and right to protest instead and, on top of the Swami Ramdev Baba fiasco, they now have more egg on their face.

But I do not believe that team Anna has had an untrammelled victory either. It is interesting that what was to be a fast unto death (and that is what the government was afraid of, after all), has now turned into a fast for just 15 days or, as Kiran Bedi so interestingly puts it, an ‘indefinite fast’ (I thought an indefinite fast usually led to a situation like death as happened in the case of Swami Nigamananda who was fasting ‘indefinitely’ for a cleaner Ganga to whom nobody paid attention until he died of it in April this year).

But obviously Bedi and the others holding Anna hostage are realising that even they cannot hold their intransigent positions ‘indefinitely’ and so there have been many climb downs from them as well – 15 days of fasting instead of the month of the earlier insistence, ‘until health permits’ instead of the earlier fast unto death, the feeler that they may be willing to leave the higher judiciary out of their jan lokpal bill, the acceptance of many conditions laid down by the police that they had refused earlier (though, of course, even the Delhi cops have withdrawn many of those).

The question is, what next? What after these 15 days? Because, as far as I can see, though still wiping all the muck off their face, this is as far as the government might be prepared to concede. There is no way they will agree to bring the Prime Minister into the purview of the lokpal or even the Central Bureau of investigation. Team Anna then will have nowhere to go – unless they are prepared to sit at Ramlila Maidan forever, for no political party, however much the opposition ones might be taking delight in the Congress’s unenviable situation, will be willing to allow themsleves to be written out of relevance by a handful of members claiming to (but most certainly not) represent the rest of India.

And, frankly, if people step back from their emotional stances, they will see that even the government’s so-called weaker version of the lokpal bill might not really be necessary. We already have the likes of A Raja, Kanimozhi and Suresh Kalmadi and a host of other allegedly corrupt corporates cooling their heels in prison, even without the existence of a lokpal. I am not against the anti-corruption movement but I believe we already have a slew of laws that can deal effectively with corruption in high places. We only need the political will and non-interference of our politicians in the processes for these to do their job effectively.

Then, I believe, the better law (and indeed one the politicians are beginning to hate) is the Right to Information. Even if politicians like Kalmadi hadn’t learnt it in their time, it should be obvious in a very short while to our political class that they will always get caught out under this act and that there will be a price to pay.

I wish that law had existed some 15-20 years ago when my aunt, a childless widow, who had surrounded herself with an assortment of nieces and nephews, eventually fell out with one of them and wished to have his name struck off her ration card.

She went to the rationing officer on her own and despite the fact that she was over 70, frail and without transport of her own, she was made to return again and again by the man who said striking the name off her card was going to be a very complicated procedure.

When I heard of her trial, I decided to go to the rationing office myself, and soon it was pretty clear to me what the ‘complication’ was.

“All we are asking you to do is strike off a name. Its not as though we want to add one. We are depriving ourselves of the additional rations we might get by keeping that name on. So what’s your problem?”

He made me sit there for hours (while he still held my aunt’s ration card). Then along came a man with his own ration card and a high value note peeping out from the top edge of the booklet. “Yeh le lo, Sir, aur aap jaldi kaam niptaa doh (Take this and get the job done),” he said.

The rationing officer smiled smugly, taking his ration booklet from the man and pushing it to the back of his draw. Then he told me, “Inse kuch seekho. Bade samajhdaar hain yeh (Learn something from him. He is very wise)!”

I was outraged. I rose to my feet and told him, “Right! I am now going to the chief minister with this complaint!”

If I had thought he would begin to quiver in his boots at that threat, I was greatly mistaken. It just did not bother the guy. “Mukhya mantri ho ya pradhan mantri ho. Aap koh toh aana mere paas hee hai (Be it the CM or the PM. You will have to come to me in the end)!” he said, not worried even a tad.

I did go to the chief minister and that officer went green around the gills (a very satisfying moment for me) when he was summoned for questioning. He pretended he had never got my aunt’s ration card and since my aunt had handed it over to him and did not have it in her possession, she had to be issued a fresh one. Thankfully, with the name she wanted deleted left out from this one. And not a paisa paid in bribe for what was not really a favour.

I do not think either Anna Hazare or the jan lokpal bill can ever stop ‘ghooskhors’ (bribe takers) like this one. Although my aunt is now no more and my access to politicians ensures that I can get work like hers done without resorting to bribes (if any of them is corrupt, at least they don’t dare ask me for one!), what about the common people who are now largely peopling Anna’s movement against corruption? And largely for reasons like that particular rationing officer?

For, when I last looked I noticed that, though somewhat older and senior (though not necessarily wiser), he was still around. And looking even more smug and prosperous. Even that could be indefinite!

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