By Swapan Dasgupta
It is a sobering experience for a journalist to be proved wrong. Human behaviour and, for that matter, political behaviour does not follow—whatever Marxists say—any science and are dependent on too many unknown variables. However, it gives me absolutely no pleasure to suggest that last week's column where I had argued that the Congress seems hell-bent on pursuing a policy of subterfuge has turned out bang on target.
What the country witnessed throughout this past week was the Congress, backed quietly by a section of the Government, going on an overdrive to discredit the father-son duo of Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan, important 'civil society' representatives nominated to the drafting committee of the Lokpal Bill by Anna Hazare.
First, there was the discovery of a dispute between Shanti Bhushan and the Uttar Pradesh Government over the stamp duty for the purchase of a property in Allahabad's Civil Lines. The UP Government claims that Shanti Bhushan underpaid the stamp duty and has issued a notice for more. The matter, as happens to such things involving lawyers, is under litigation. I have some issues with Shanti Bhushan leveraging his position as a sitting tenant to force what seems like a distress sale by the landlord. But that is not to suggest that the lawyer 'evaded' taxes. He has merely disputed the Government claim for an additional Rs 1.35 crore.
Secondly, there was the mysterious appearance of a CD containing a purported conversation between Shanti Bhushan and Mulayam Singh Yadav and his now estranged associate Amar Singh. Although the full transcript hasn't got into the public domain, Delhi's bush telegraph is abuzz with suggestions that the lawyer allegedly offered to 'fix' the judiciary. There are also hints of generously-funded PILs. The Bhushans have questioned the authenticity of the conversation and slapped defamation cases against Amar Singh and Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh. However, some newspapers claim they have a certificate of authenticity from the Central Forensic Laboratory in Hyderabad.
Finally, the Indian Express has established that Shanti Bhushan and his other son were allotted two farm properties around NOIDA by the Mayawati Government. Since the Bhushans are fighting two important PILs against the Mayawati Government, the transaction has raised eyebrows. The Bhushans say the allotment followed their application following a public offer. That may well be the case but what is under scrutiny is the discretionary allotments of farmlands by the UP Government. Should, detractors of the Bhushans are asking, they have accepted the allotments knowing full well that the procedures adopted by the State Government authority were suspect? There is no suggestion of corrupt practice but the Bhushans are accused of not living up to the exacting standards they demand of others.
The cumulative effect of the three assaults on the integrity of the Bhushans is that it has cast a shadow over the moral credentials of the 'civil society' crusaders against corruption. The Congress is absolutely jubilant since it has consistently sought to deny the Anna-led movement its moral halo. Who are they, belligerent Congress leaders are asking, to lecture us on corruption? Or as they said in the Bible, "Physician, heal thyself."
There is no doubt that the sustained Congress campaign has had the effect of showing the Bhushans as damaged goods. There have been calls for the duo to step down—a demand that, ironically, stems from bitter factional disputes in the activist-dominated 'civil society'. If that happens, the Government would have scored a huge psychological victory.
Since the Congress also believes that politics is all about clever management and tripping opponents, it is also possible that the Government views the anxieties in the anti-corruption as evidence of disarray. It is only a matter of time, they believe, that anti-corruption as a political issue will be dead and buried.
If life was only about cleverness, the Congress optimism would have been justified. However, it is entirely possible that the frenzied bid to derail the Anna campaign could also be viewed as confirmation that the neither the Government nor the Congress attaches importance to fighting corruption. Indeed, last week's events may well be seen as evidence of a Congress vested interest in arbitrary and corrupt governance. That the Bhushans could have some explaining to do doesn't mean that the Congress emerges squeaky clean.
Actually, the Congress believes that the fuss over corruption is a passing show and will be replaced by 'real' issues—whatever these may be. To my mind, that seems like a desperate pipedream. What the explosion of sentiment in support of Anna indicated was that this is an issue that drives the middle classes. And what drives the middle classes permeates sooner or later into rural India because the urban dwellers too have roots in the localities.
The Anna Hazare movement was somewhat guarded in its hostility to the Congress. It appeared to target the political class and the prevailing political culture. Yet, the viciousness with which the Congress tried to derail this movement will hold out important lessons for the future. The next time the streets of India resonate with anti-corruption chants, the movement will be more explicitly anti-Congress.
Anna Hazare was the buffer that prevented the parliamentary opposition from taking full advantage of popular anger. In weakening that buffer, the Congress may have won a short-term advantage but is in real danger of losing the war.