Sunday, August 28, 2011

Anna Hazare in Perspective

The patriotic glow cast by the mass media on the end of Anna Hazare’s fast should not blind us to the fact that the primary institution of Indian democracy, Parliament, has just survived a serious assault. The chronological sequence below shows where the threats came from and how they were defused.

1.    The essential prelude to the agitation were the "CWG scams" brought to light in August 2010 by a leak from a source within the British government, and the "2G spectrum scam" revealed by the selective leak in November 2010 of wire taps on the phones of corporate lobbyist Niira Raadia, a British national. Media coverage in both cases verged on the hysterical, but no one made a peep about the significance of the British connection.

2.    In April 2011, Anna Hazare began a “fast unto death” to force the UPA government to enact a Lokpal Bill left hanging by a succession of governments for some four decades. He called it off after four days and “Team Anna” entered into consultations with the UPA government on the proposed legislation. The Team's lead member, a former bureaucrat turned social activist, Arvind Kejriwal, has reportedly received some $400,000 in foreign funds for his NGO Parivartan. Three other members of the Team – Swami Agnivesh, Kiran Bedi and Prashant Bhushan – put their divided national loyalties on public display in a February 2011 letter to The Guardian “appealing” for the continuation of the BBC’s Hindi Service. They argue that its balanced and impartial news was needed on such matters as Kashmir and when Indian democracy is threatened.

3.    While all this was happening, Baba Ramdev the billionaire yoga teacher and apothecary, travelled around the country trying to build a national political party; his main pitch was against "black money." His foray into politics came less than a year after receiving a small British island as a “gift from a devotee.” Located off Scotland, it is easily accessed from the British military training facility for dirty tricks/guerrilla warfare. In June 2011, after his "fast unto death" against black money turned into comic opera and Ramdev was hustled back from Delhi to his ashram in Haridwar, he developed a severe case of loose lips and told the Press he would field an armed force -- next time.

4.    In July, the government's refusal to accept Team Anna's draconian (and unconstitutional) proposals led to a breakdown in talks. Hazare announced that he would resume his “indefinite fast” on 16 August. However, talks with the Delhi Police over its venue and duration proved problematic, for "Team Anna" was reluctant to accept safety and traffic control constraints. In an overzealous effort to prevent trouble the Police arrested Hazare before he could begin fasting and took him to Tihar Jail, making him an instant martyr.

5. Although released the same evening Hazare elected to stay in Jail for a further two days. In that time massively disproportionate and sensationalized coverage of public protests and demonstrations appeared on all 24-hour television news stations and the "elite" print media. Hazare left Tihar to adulatory media coverage and made a heroic trip atop a flower bedecked carriage to Rajghat and then to the Ramlila Grounds where a giagantic photograph of the Mahatma served as backdrop to his fast. Unlike Gandhi’s fasts, which were always in private and devoid of all show Hazare was surrounded by flag waving, chanting, dancing, singing crowds. There was also non-stop gluttony all around as people scoffed down free food and left massive amounts of garbage. Faced with television reporters asking for their opinions, film stars and other celebrities provided statements of support. (Kiran Bedi was so enthused her inner Sita Ram Goel emerged and declared: “Anna is India and India is Anna.” Kejriwal, evidently a man of refined tastes in propaganda, disasociated himself from that statement. Congress Party spokesman Manish Tiwari's unfortunate observation that Anna was corrupt from top to toe did nothing to balance public perceptions.)

6.  Anna also seemed chuffed up by the outpouring of support from the television channels and in a fit of arrogance demanded that the government withdraw its own Lokpal Bill and have Parliament adopt his Jan Lokpal Bill. He set 30 August as the deadline for its adoption with only “minor changes.” When told that those demands could not be met he called on supporters to gherao the houses of Members of Parliament and Parliament itself. This attempt to replay the 1975 scenario that led to the declaration of Mrs. Gandhi’s "Emergency" could easily have snowballed out of control, but the crowds that turned out at MP’s houses were too thin to precipitate a crisis.

7.  An all-party meeting of Members of Parliament unanimously rejected the idea that a civil society group could contravene Parliamentary procedure that requires legislation to go through a Standing Committee charged, inter alia, with listening to all shades of opinion before formulating a proposal. As Government-Team Anna consultations continued it became clear that Hazare himself was not being accurately informed by his supposed representatives. Science and Technology Minister Vilasrao Deshmuk, a long-time acquaintance of Hazare began to liaise with him directly. Bedi and Kejriwal were excluded from the last phase of consultations.

8. The end came into sight after Hazare announced new conditions for breaking his fast. They were: (a) that the Lokpal’s jurisdiction should cover the lower end of the bureaucracy; (b) that states have their own Lokyuktas mirroring the Lokpal; (c) that all government departments have their own Citizen’s Charter; and (d) that Parliament debate his proposals. After his announcement Team Anna brought in the demand that the debate must be followed by a resolution of Parliament. The debate on Saturday, 27 August, made clear the wide diversity of views; however, all agreed on the primacy of Parliament. At the end of the debate Finance Minister Pranab Mukherji made a perfunctory statement mentioning Hazare’s conditions and members respond by thumping their desks. The “resolution” was deemed adopted. In comments later, MPs made clear their action did not bind the Standing Committee which will report a Bill to the House based on its own deliberations. Team Anna, thoroughly chastened, did not react to the brush-off. Bedi, who a day earlier was prancing around the Ramlila stage with a scarf around her head, mocking the government, appeared meekly on television to thank members of Parliament. Hazare set 10 A.M Sunday for breaking his fast.

9. Hazare broke his fast by accepting a drink of coconut water from two little girls rounded up for the occasion, one Muslim, the other a Dalit. The tokenism made clear Team Anna had no members or helpers who belong to the minority or underprivileged sections of society. Mendacious to the end, the media declared the outcome a great victory for Hazare. Headlines Today declared it “Anna’s August Revolution.” Times Now declared “Anna’s Complete Victory.” The Sunday newspapers continued the flow of lies.

This sorry train of events has underlined not only the very serious deficiencies of our “elite media,” but the dangerous extent to which foreign funding has bought up the loyalties of civil society. At any time during the last two weeks a few determined individuals could have precipitated a national crisis. Kejriwal's midnight announcement from the Ramlila podium that a move was afoot to arrest Hazare could have resulted in panic and mayhem, poisoning the political atmosphere and leading us down the path to a new "Emergency." If key leaders of the Government and Opposition parties had not been so adept at dealing with a confused and risky situation, we could easily have gone the way of the countries overtaken by post Cold War "velvet" and "color" revolutions. In India's case, the primary aim of foreign manipulators is not regime change for its own sake but the destabilization of the country at a critical juncture in international economic affairs.

As the Lokpal initiative seeks to rid the government of corruption, it is imperative to begin a parallel process to cleanse the media and civil society. The "new awareness" lauded by television analysts should not be directed only at the government; there is need for independent oversight of the media and NGOs.

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