Sunday, April 17, 2011

Congress opts for confrontation

By Swapan Dasgupta

Politics resonates with leaders and apparatchiks who not only have inordinate faith in their own cleverness but simultaneously believe the rest of the world is made up of fools. The Communists have traditionally based their conceit on their profound insights into a mysterious commodity called "scientific socialism"; the smugness of many RSS functionaries can be traced to their exaggerated sanctimoniousness; and the arrogance of Congressmen owe almost entirely to the conviction that only they know the art of 'managing' politics.

In the immediate aftermath of Anna Hazare's fast, an event that took it by surprise, the Congress has chosen to display the entire range of its skills in political management. From its perspective, there was a desperate need to send out a SOS, call in accumulated IOUs and invite all its good men to come to the aid of the party. Having been at the receiving end of a torrent of corruption-related scandals since August last year, the party was despondent and dispirited. So profound was the sagging morale that at this rate it would have been impossible for the UPA Government to complete its full second term—an ignominy calculated to have devastating electoral consequences.

After the government's abject capitulation before Anna on the evening of April 8 and suggestions of a possible defeat in Tamil Nadu and the loss of momentum in Kerala, the Congress could wait no longer. Even as the last voter was entering the polling booth in the southern states, the Congress unleashed its dogs of war with a very clear two-point brief: first, to dissipate and eventually destroy the groundswell of support for Anna and, second, to blunt corruption as a political issue.

To the person of average intellect, the best way to cope with the national concern over corruption was to tackle the problem headlong, with a combination of firm administrative action and, where necessary, additional legislation. To the clever Congress managers such lateral thinking was 'non-political'. The 'political' way, as they saw it, lay in out and out subterfuge—a game the Congress believes it has unrivalled skills.

First, it was necessary to discredit the leading lights of the operation. Anna himself was a difficult target—although some dirt has been heaped on him—but some of the 'civil society' nominees to the Lokpal Bill drafting committee have been chosen to be at the receiving end of a campaign of vilification. The campaign is very reminiscent of the St Kitts operation of 1988-89 when it was alleged that V.P. Singh's son possessed unauthorised offshore bank accounts.

In the St Kitts case, the operation was outsourced to a godman of dubious reputation; today's operation, targeting Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan and using the tapes of an alleged phone conversation, has been outsourced to an orphaned politician who proved useful in the past. It is understood that a Leader of Opposition is being targeted by this politically-approved rogue operation.

Secondly, latching on to a statement by Anna complimenting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's administrative acumen, there is an attempt to show that the entire anti-corruption movement is being remote controlled by the RSS. An elaborate conspiracy theory linking the Jantar Mantar show with Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has been built up to hint that the future of parliamentary democracy is under threat. More theoretical versions of this theory have resurrected Karl Marx's writings on France to argue that the middle classes are veering towards undemocratic Bonapartist solutions—a hint that Modi may be the only beneficiary of an anti-corruption upsurge. Harsh Mander of the National Advisory Council has even asserted that Anna's anti-corruption movement lacks compassion!

To play the anti-communal card in times of distress is a time-tested ploy. Faced with a people's challenge, the Congress has chosen to inject sectarian divisions into the movement. 'Secular' commentators have invoked memories of movements led by Jayaprakash Narayan and V.P. Singh to argue that these invariably pave the way for an onward march of the BJP. Secularist crusader Javed Anand of Communalism Combat even explained why as a Muslim he couldn't identify with Anna.

Thirdly, a panic-stricken Congress has been unnerved at way a section of the NGOs (which the party believed was a captive constituency) turned on the Government. Its response is the all-too familiar divide-and-rule approach. Digvijay Singh gave the game away by making personalised attacks on those chosen by Anna to be in the committee. He was indiscreet enough to openly say that Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander, both members of the Sonia Gandhi-led NAC, should have been chosen—a certificate that speaks for itself.

Finally, the Congress has decided to withdraw all cooperation from all the bodies either inquiring into cases of corruption or suggesting legislation to fight it. The proceeding of the Public Accounts Committee was disrupted last Friday; the Joint Parliamentary Committee is certain to be bogged down by procedural and turf battles; and there is little likelihood of the drafting committee being able to agree on a common Lokpal Bill.

The Congress has chosen to a path of confrontation towards the movement against corruption. It seems to believe that brazenness is a sign of cleverness. This was precisely the mistake Indira Gandhi made after 1973 and which Rajiv Gandhi repeated in 1988-89. The consequences are well known.

Sunday Pioneer, April 17, 2011

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