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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Great deal of angst and anger forced free Hazare

NEW DELHI: A nervous government suddenly capitulated on Tuesday, jettisoning its attempt to take on Lokpal activists led by Gandhian leader Anna Hazare in the face of rising criticism that it has cracked down on an anti-corruption movement.

Always a risk-laden option, the move to confront Anna and arrest him backfired on the government and Congress as after spending the day defending the police action, the ruling coalition found the civil society leader too hot a potato to keep in the Tihar Jail.

Having said that the action against Anna was taken by the Delhi Police because as it apprehended he would commit a "cognizable offence" by defying prohibitory orders at the venue where Anna was to go on fast, it is clear that legal arguments proved to be totally inadequate.

"Hazare said he was proceeding to Jaiprakash Narain Park to defy the orders. At that time, police came to the conclusion that he and his supporters would commit a cognizable offence and there could be likely breach of peace and they decided to take action under Sections 107 and 151 of CrPC," home minister P Chidambaram said.

But it was not a case of whether Anna was going to break a law. It was about the moral offensive he was launching, running down the government as an entity incapable of delivering a genuinely effective anti-corruption Lokpal. This is the issue at hand that the government's spokespersons have only partially addressed.

After deliberations, including a meeting of the cabinet committee on political affairs, and faced with a united Opposition, HRD minister Kapil Sibal and I&B minister Ambika Soni said they shared Anna's concern on corruption. "We are on Anna's side and Anna is on our side (as far as fight against corruption is concerned)," Sibal said, adding that the disagreement was over Team Anna's insistence on accepting their bill and no other bill.

Chidambaram admitted that there was "great deal of angst and anger" among people on corruption and termed the Lokpal as "not a panacea but one of the answers" to deal with the menace. The government line was shared by the Congress, which felt that tackling Anna's movement carried the inherent risk of painting the government as favouring the corrupt because the aam aadmi, suffering daily hardships, was unlikely to be drawn into legal niceties.

The tricky issue manifested itself in the form of Anna's judicial custody, with party leaders saying it was bound to be seen as another government act of persecuting the veteran leader. The ruling party was hoping that Anna would be set free after arrest. But the court decision to send him to jail gave another issue to civil society to agitate against. Anna's late night release appeared targeted at blunting this criticism that the government had to face both in Parliament and outside.

With corruption having a strong resonance with the aam aadmi, there is a realization that it will be tough to deal with Anna while not being seen to be soft on corruption. Many felt the need to act fast on anti-corruption measures, with delays proving costly. The Lokpal bill itself is set to stay beyond the monsoon session of Parliament, providing a reason for the government's opponents to rally around.

The anti-graft momentum had allies like the Samajwadi Party and the RLD and the Left too joined the BJP-led Opposition ranks to protest Anna's arrest. It showed that painting the Anna agitation with RSS was not cutting ice in the short run, with an SP leader saying it was the party's compulsion to be seen with the popular opinion. While BSP stayed away, the SP was not scared into thinking that it could cost support among minorities in the coming polls.

In a marked difference from earlier Congress attacks on Anna, Soni said the activist was a "reputed person" and the government trusted his word on the protest being peaceful. She, however, said that no one could guarantee that there would not be any problem when such large numbers of people gathered at one place as people seated on a dais do not have control on each and every person participating in an agitation.

While echoing similar views, Chidambaram said the only way a law could be made was by legislating it in Parliament. "But if laws are not to be made by Parliament but by some social activists in a maidan, however well-meaning they are, outside Parliament, then it is beyond my comprehension," the home minister said.

Chidambaram termed as "careless" lawyer Shanti Bhushan's allegation that the Delhi Police was a puppet in the hands of the Centre. "There would be different conditions for different venues, whether the restrictions are reasonable or not can be decided in a court of law," he said, adding exhorting government employees to take mass leave was a "wrong call."

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