Sonia Gandhi must be ruing the day she picked up Dr Manmohan Singh to step in for her. When the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi spurned the throne and instead chose the unassuming retired economist to lead India, the move was seen as an extraordinary sacrifice in true Gandhian tradition. It was a sacrifice alright. But there was another, more compelling factor at work too. The Congress chief couldn’t have found a better man than Singh to keep the PM’s seat warm and secure for son Rahul Gandhi until the reticent heir-apparent was ready.
To be fair to her though, Sonia has seldom given the impression that she is the boss or the power behind the throne. For his part the self-effacing Singh hasn’t allowed himself any delusions of grandeur, treading cautiously every step and forever looking over his shoulder for ‘inspiration.’
The marriage of convenience worked well and everyone was happy — Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Congress party members and the upwardly-mobile middle classes, who saw Singh as the mascot of the rising and shining India. This is why he managed to comfortably win himself a second term, something that eluded even Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi.
All that is history now. All that goodwill the party earned itself is down the drain and the dynasty’s dream of seeing Rahul succeed Singh may remain a dream. The man who was supposed to pave the way for the ‘prince’ may have ended up losing India for the Congress with the clueless fumbling and bumbling over national crises of epic proportions in the past few months. This government is like a headless chicken and the left hand has no clue what its right one is up to. And if a little-known activist is today ruling the airwaves and newspaper front pages painting himself as the second Mahatma and his corruption crusade as the ‘second freedom struggle’, he has to thank no one but the prime minister.
Indeed, if Hazare’s agitation offers invaluable lessons in how to run a successful public campaign earning overnight celebrity, Singh’s response could serve as a text book case how not to handle a crisis. By first ignoring and then overreacting to the spectacle put together by Hazare and his small band of activists, he has managed to squander the popular mandate the party won only two years back in the shortest possible time.
As if the mess left behind by the handling of the Baba Ramdev disaster wasn’t enough, it had to hand Hazare another ‘victory’ by arresting him and sending him to jail when he turned up with his followers to start another fast in New Delhi. The sheer incompetence and clumsiness of this government is breathtaking. It’s as though it’s driven by a death wish and must blow itself up before its next date with the voter comes up.
On the other hand, the government perhaps didn’t have much of a choice. It was damned if it had ignored Hazare’s protest and damned if it didn’t. But in the age of television, you cannot rough up a septuagenarian championing a public cause and not end up earning people’s wrath. The right to peaceful protest is one of the fundamentals of democracy. Suppressing it in the land of Gandhi and numerous civil disobedience campaigns is all the more absurd.
That said, what is with Hazare’s fondness for fasts and protests? He threatens a fast-unto-death at the drop of a hat. A rebel without a pause and forever looking for a cause. More to the point, how justified is his call to arms against the government when the anti-graft Lokpal bill that is to be presented before parliament in the next few weeks? I am no apologist for the Congress but as a distant observer I can’t help notice that what the so-called Team Anna is doing is nothing but old-fashioned political blackmail.
What is most absurd and galling about this whole affair is the swollen sense of entitlement of the group of activists. The 500-plus elected representatives of a billion-strong nation must draft and pass the anti-graft bill exactly the way they want. Else, they will come out on the streets holding the country to ransom. This is nothing but subversion of democracy. My way or the highway is the way Anna and his comrades see it. They have anointed themselves the protectors and guardians of public integrity. And everyone who isn’t on their side of the fence is unpatriotic or a traitor.
Yet Hazare calls himself a follower of Gandhi. True, the Mahatma protested and often fasted to press for his demands. But he did so against a ruthless colonial power. For all its myriad flaws and warts — and there are many of them — this is a government elected by the people — and only two summers back.
Okay, our politicians aren’t exactly paragons of virtue. But all said and done, it’s they, as elected representatives of the people, who have to frame the law. It is the parliament’s prerogative to debate and turn this bill into law. Assorted public crusaders or conscience keepers of the media can only do so much to evolve public opinion for or against certain laws or provisions of a law. They can’t force the government or lawmakers to come up with a law exactly the way as they want it. Like it or not, that’s not how the system works. If you still don’t like it, go join the system, contest elections and make the kind of laws that you want.
If the Lokpal Bill, however flawed, has finally taken off and is before parliament today after numerous attempts over the decades, the credit doesn’t go to the activists but to the silent multitudes of this vibrant nation. The surfeit of corruption scams involving billions of dollars during the past year or two has sickened the nation to the core. Hazare and his fellow travellers only exploited and channelised this public rage.
This is not the best of times to be a politician in India — especially from the Congress. Yet it’s not just Congress politicians who have been caught with their hand in the till. In this Turkish bath, just about everyone is without a stitch on.
Of course, the Lokpal Bill could have done with more teeth. Personally, I believe no one is above the law, including the prime minister, judiciary and lawmakers. Indeed, the higher the authority the greater should be the accountability, as Islam insists. For corruption like power flows from top down. No wonder Gandhi would talk of Abu Bakr and Omar, the first great caliphs celebrated for their integrity and accountability.
However, this government and most lawmakers, including those from the BJP which is enjoying the fun from a distance while Hazare fights its war dragging the Congress through the mud, are convinced that the premier should be left out because of the pivotal nature of the job.
Maybe they are right — or wrong. Whatever the case, it’s naive and simplistic to believe a single law or institution, no matter how powerful, could eliminate the scourge of graft. There’s no magic formula or wand, as Singh put it in his deadpan speech in parliament, to fight the menace.
What we need is a change in mindset, our national psyche and the culture that has come to accept, approve and perpetuate corruption in every sphere of public and private life. What India badly needs is moral leadership that politicians have obviously failed to offer. The wannabe mahatmas are trying to fill this void.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published commentator. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/aijazzakasyed