The hunger games and dreams of power

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As the anti-graft Bill remains in cold storage, is an impatient Team Anna slowly morphing into a political force with an eye on the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, asks Revati Laul

New tactics Team Anna may end up taking on the Congress via the ballot box
New tactics Team Anna may end up taking on the Congress via the ballot box
Photo: AFP

ONE YEAR ago, people watching the swelling crowds at Anna Hazare’s fast called it India’s Arab Spring. Now they are calling Team Anna India’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if the comparisons seem absurd, there is an uncanny parallel to be drawn. Last year, Team Anna was fighting for a people’s democracy. A year later, Prashant Bhushan, the third most important face of the movement after Anna and key strategist Arvind Kejriwal, says their aim is revolution. “We don’t really expect anything from the government,” says Bhushan. “India is rapidly hurtling towards chaos because all these fellows are spending their time with their hands in the till.”

Bhushan explains that since no political party has agreed to Team Anna’s charter of demands and therefore “blocking all useful reforms”, the team will have to move forward without them. The political rhetoric, like that of the Muslim Brotherhood on the streets of Egypt and even Syria, is a rejection of all current political parties. And much of the system within which they sit.

Of course, a direct comparison is probably far too cynical. An “electoral revolution” is what Bhushan says the team is now preparing for. Does this basically mean Team Anna will contest the 2014 general election as a political party? “Maybe,” was the answer, pregnant with meaning. The most significant of which is that Anna’s fast is no longer about the passing of the Lokpal Bill. Although that’s what he himself says he’s fasting for.

Kejriwal says he and the other team members, who began fasting three days before Anna, want the UPA government to probe charges of corruption against 14 ministers, including Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. Team Anna wants a special investigation team to be set up to look into the charges that it has presented. The team would also like the government to agree to its list of judges and eminent people who will probe these charges.

But even Bhushan knows that these demands are not going to be entertained by the government, let alone met. So why is Anna fasting? This time it’s not for the Lokpal Bill. It is to ratchet up support for what has now become a mainstream political movement with ambitions to create an alternative to all the existing parties.

The passing of the Lokpal Bill, even Team Anna acknowledges, will not happen in the Monsoon Session of Parliament. The slow-moving beast is now in the shape and form of a draft that was prepared by the Lok Sabha’s Standing Committee, which was sent forward to yet another committee, this time in the Rajya Sabha. The Select Committee, formed a month ago, is looking at the contents of the draft and is examining a long list of people before it files its report and suggests changes. The committee members have met five times and are currently asking everyone, from the Secretary of the Department of Personnel and Training, the director and officers of the CBI and also Aruna Roy’s National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), for their opinion.

They are meant to submit a report in the last week of the current Parliament session, but Select Committee Chairman Satyavrat Chaturvedi says, “There is a dearth of time.” Even if the committee manages to send the report on time, any changes will then be taken apart and cross-examined by the Lok Sabha MPs before it can become law.

Observers fear that by antagonising all political parties, Team Anna may have lost more than just precious political leverage

Therefore, beneath the surface, a subterranean layer is very visible. A cynical but candid opinion from an MP, who is privy to the government discussions and therefore did not want to be named, is as follows: MPs across the board more or less agree that Anna’s version of the Lokpal, where the CBI will be under the Lokpal and not government control, will never happen. There is also a perception that Team Anna has lost the political leverage it had last year even though it still has a large number of supporters. Therefore, whatever the MPs hammer out, it will most definitely not be what Anna wants. And the MPs believe they can afford to turn back and say to him, “Frankly my dear, we couldn’t give a damn.”

It is perhaps not a coincidence then that Bhushan has outlined a higher and bigger trajectory for Team Anna. One that delivers the message: “We know you don’t care. None of the political parties do. So we have no choice but to go ahead and just do our own thing. Find an alternative.” Not just an alternative Bill, but an alternative to all existing political parties.

SOME OBSERVERS say that for Team Anna to enter the mainstream political space is exactly what the UPA government and also other political parties want. They are the bigger sharks. They may just end up swallowing Team Anna whole in a game they have played for over 60 years and have mastered. But those are the cynics. Team Anna says coming up with a revolutionary ideal is both essential and brave. Of course, it will continue to fight for the passing of the Lokpal Bill, say the members. But that is not the main focus anymore. Or the only thing the team is fighting for. If it were, some argue, the Bill wouldn’t be inching its way sluggishly through what many describe as a passive Select Committee.

Activist Nikhil Dey, who is part of the NCPRI, says they will continue the dogged fight for the Lokpal and a slew of related reforms — the Grievance Redressal Bill, the Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill and Judicial Accountability Bill pending before various parliamentary Standing Committees. Their deliberate chipping away at the system is what they say got the Right to Information Act passed. Their method is not soul-stirring or even charged with revolutionary potential. It does not attract a large crowd. From the outside, it may even appear to people as status quoits while actually being the opposite.

On the other hand, the fiery revolutionaries have managed yet again to gather a few thousand people at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, along with a few crane-mounted cameras. However, some fear that in antagonising all political parties and speaking out against all MPs, Team Anna may not just have lost precious political leverage. But another opportunity to have the Lokpal Bill that they want passed.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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