India’s anti-graft crusaders hint at taking the fight against government into the political arena
NEW DELHI — Marking a departure from its traditional stand of staying “completely apolitical”, India’s ongoing anti-corruption movement on July 31 appeared to lean towards formation of a political alternative.
Addressing a crowd of thousands at Jantar Mantar Square in New Delhi, Prashant Bhushan, eminent lawyer and a senior member of Team Anna, the group leading the movement under the leadership of veteran social activist Anna Hazare, said, “It is time for an alternative politics to shape up. Power should return to the hands of the people.”
“Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia and Gopal Rai [all senior members of Team Anna] should give up their fast. Their lives are very valuable and are needed to form an alternative political forum,” he added.
Others like former cop Kiran Bedi and Kumar Vishwas declared the movement’s growing political slant saying the movement’s mission is to ensure that “new and apt people” come to power in the 2014 polls by defeating the Congress-led ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition.
The team also attacked the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleging that its earlier support for the movement was based largely upon political opportunism.
Appearing to have lost mass support in recent months, the movement got a fresh lease of life on July 29 when Anna sat on an indefinite hunger strike at Jantar Mantar to press for his team’s demand of passing of Jan Lokpal [(anti-corruption) Ombudsman Bill] in the parliament and investigation into cases of corruption involving senior politicians, including 15 federal ministers.
But even as the 74-year-old activist’s fast entered the third day and the health of two of his aides – especially that of Kejriwal, who has been fasting since July 25 – worsened, the government showed no signs of relenting on Team Anna’s demands.
On July 30, India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni even went to the extent of accusing Team Anna of resorting to blackmail tactics.
Similarly, when asked whether he would appeal to Team Anna to call off its agitation, senior lawmaker from the ruling Congress party Satyavrata Chaturvedi replied in the negative.
“Activists have their own agenda and I don’t want to appeal to them. They cannot challenge the independence of the House [parliament]. The House is supreme. Other views too need to be respected. There is no point appealing to them. They can do what they like.”
But an official statement from the government on July 31 said that the Prime Minister’s Office sent two letters to Anna under the advise of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, urging the veteran social activist to take the path of negotiations with the government.
Anna was quick to react. Addressing his supporters at Jantar Mantar, Anna said he would not talk to anyone in the government — including the Prime Minister — until his demands were met.
“This movement will continue till politics is cleaned up. Our struggle has not lost its way — I am clear that if the Jan Lokpal Bill is passed, at least 70% of corruption will end in the country,” he said amid loud cheers from thousands of his supporters.
He said he would sit on fast again and again till there is ‘flood of good politics’ in the country.
Though Anna Hazare has ruled out the possibility of him joining politics, he has indicated that his team members might contest the next parliamentary polls against the mainstream political parties.
He even threatened to return the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award.
Earlier in the day, government-appointed doctors reached the venue to advise Arvind Kejriwal and Gopal Rai — both fasting since July 25 — to get medical treatment as their health had become cause of concern.
The two rejected the appeal, telling the supporters that they were “not cowards who will give up because of health concerns”.
“I am warning the government not to try to arrest us and force us to go to hospital,” Kejriwal said.
The principal disagreement between Team Anna and the government lies in arriving at the scope of the proposed anti-graft Ombudsman, under the Jan Lokpal Bill.
Team Anna believes the Ombudsman should be empowered to probe and prosecute politicians, including public administrators of all levels, higher judiciary, parliamentarians and even the prime minister.
The government, on the other hand, feels this will create a parallel government and run against the basic premise of checks and balances Indian democracy is based upon.
With the government appearing ever more reluctant to engage Team Anna, the activists now seem to be formulating a new strategy that may lead them to fight the battle politically.