The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on Thursday signalled its willingness to relent and set the stage for a possible end to its 10-day stand-off with anti-graft activist Anna Hazare.
After Parliament made a joint appeal to Hazare to end his fast, which has seen the activist lose 6kg, the UPA moved halfway to meet the three conditions put before the government by Team Anna. While the UPA has agreed to a debate in Parliament on the Jan Lokpal Bill, though along with other versions of the anti-graft Bill, it bought itself some extra time on the other demands—the Lokpal should extend to all government employees and also cover the states—by saying that it had to discuss it with the opposition parties in Parliament.
A lot will now depend on whether Hazare, who held direct parleys with Union science and technology minister and former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, is willing to accept a compromise. Deshmukh is expected to convey the government’s stand to Hazare later in the night or early on Friday morning.
On a day in which both sides assumed rhetorical positions eschewing?any compromise, events took an abrupt turn by evening after the two sides reached out to each other yet again. After the breakdown of talks on Wednesday night, hopes of a compromise receded sharply after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement in the Lok Sabha.
Singh reiterated the supremacy of Parliament in the legislative process, while saying the government was willing to debate the provisions in different versions of the anti-graft Bill in the House before finalizing the Lokpal Bill. On the other hand, Hazare and team stepped up the pressure, putting forward three conditions and threatened a siege of Delhi from Saturday if their demands were not acceded to. “I have sent a message to the Prime Minister. If you want to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill, then start the discussion tomorrow morning. I have three demands. If there is support (for them), then I can consider ending the fast,” Hazare told a packed Ramlila Ground.
His demands include a new independent agency, the Lokpal, to investigate corruption and that it should cover junior bureaucrats so that graft is combated “from the villages to our ministries”; introduction of the Lokpal Act in states across the country; and adoption of a citizen’s charter by government departments that would punish officials for underperformance.
Singh and his cabinet colleagues held a series of meetings till late in the evening and decided to pass a resolution supporting a strong and effective Lokpal Bill. However, no final decision was taken to effect an end to the stalemate.
Earlier in the day, the Prime Minister made an emotional appeal to Hazare in Parliament to end his hunger strike, proposing that Parliament, instead of the standing committee, could debate his demands as well as the provisions in the other versions of the Bill. Heaping praise on Hazare, Singh said: “I respect his idealism. I respect him as an individual. He has become the embodiment of our people’s disgust and concern about tackling corruption. I applaud him, I salute him. His life is much too precious?and,?therefore,?I would urge Anna Hazare to end his fast.”
Singh, whose coalition government has been battling a series of corruption charges and controversies that created a governance and policy paralysis, had earlier criticized the activist, saying that the path chosen by him was “totally misconceived” and would lead to “grave consequences for the parliamentary democracy”.
However, Hazare, whose health has become a major concern for the government and his supporters, declined the olive branch. “You (PM) say you are worried. Now he is saying that we are worried, but for 10 days you were not worried. It went on like this,” he said, adding the government had betrayed him twice in the past and that he would not like to be betrayed for a third time.
Warning that he would intensify his agitation if the government didn’t give in to his demands, Hazare urged his supporters to protest before all the lawmakers’ houses across the country in gatherings of 25,000-30,000 people. Hazare added that he would continue his protest till the government passed the Jan Lokpal Bill. But Santosh Hegde, former anti-graft ombudsman of Karnataka and one of his close associates, told CNN-IBN that it was the right time for Hazare to end his fast.
Meanwhile, the Congress continued its efforts to reduce the trust deficit. Lok Sabha member and Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari apologized for his earlier critical remarks against Hazare. “You know in the cut and thrust of political discourse, at times certain things get said inadvertently, which cause hurt, which cause anguish and which cause pain. I know that some of my recent utterances have caused hurt to Mr Anna Hazare,” Tewari said.
Hazare did not spare even the opposition and questioned the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “You should say that we will support this Bill and ask the government to bring it. But now everyone has joined hands because they fear that power will slip out of their hands,” he said.
Within an hour, BJP president Nitin Gadkari extended his party’s full support to Hazare and his cause, and condemned the government’s “change of stance” on the issue. Gadkari said in a letter to Hazare: “BJP accepts your draft Jan Lokpal Bill to be the basis for a strong and effective Lokpal to be put in place at the earliest without getting into procedural wrangles.”
PTI contributed to this story.