New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government precipitated a political and populist crisis after the Delhi Police arrested activist Anna Hazare hours before he was to begin a hunger strike.
In the process, it served up the first serious political test for Rahul Gandhi, who recently took charge as the co-leader of the country’s oldest political party in the absence of his mother and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
Late evening, the government compounded its political problems by moving to release Hazare from Tihar Jail, where he was sent after his arrest. “We have issued his release warrant and it has been sent to the jail authorities, now it is up to them to release him,” Delhi Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told the AFP news agency. However, potentially complicating the situation, Hazare refused to leave the jail demanding an unconditional release, according to reports by television channels. The activist was still in jail as of going to press.
The arrest of Hazare, who had declared that he would fast unto death till his demands on the Lokpal Bill were met, has not only united the opposition parties that see this as an attack on democracy, but also angered the middle class across the country.
Hazare, who had earlier forced the government to start work on the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill, after an April protest, outmanoeuvred the government, forcing it to take the politically difficult decision of arresting him—a decision that has provided his movement a fresh momentum.
Political analysts and economists believe this has set the stage for the worst crisis for the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-led government that has spent the better part of the 26 months in its second term battling a series of corruption scandals.
Hazare was picked up from an East Delhi residence on Tuesday morning and subsequently arrested after the activist and his team decided to go ahead with the hunger strike despite the Delhi Police asking him to stick to certain conditions.
Hazare’s arrest triggered an outpouring of public support, with people coming out on the streets and raising anti-corruption slogans, and participating in candlelight vigils in some cities, including New Delhi, and even the intelligentsia, which had criticized Hazare for his my-way-or-the-highway approach to the anti-corruption legislation, condemned the “anti-democratic” move of the government.
As the government tried to resurrect its image and salvage its legislative agenda in Parliament’s monsoon session, Rahul Gandhi, who has just returned from the US where his mother is recuperating after a surgery, held a series of meetings with senior party leaders.
On Tuesday, Gandhi, widely seen as the Congress party’s future prime ministerial candidate, met finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and home minister P. Chidambaram. People familiar with the developments said both the ministers explained the government’s actions to the general secretary, who has been given charge of the party along with defence minister A.K. Antony, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel and party general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi.
Gandhi, whose body language has visibly altered and appeared to be more authoritative, was also seen to be in an intense conversation with Preneet Kaur, a Congress leader from Punjab and minister of state for external affairs, and Kamal Nath, Union minister for urban development, in Parliament corridors.
The government’s rethink on Hazare’s arrest later in the day was due to Gandhi’s initiative, people familiar with the situation said.
“He is slowly taking charge. Though he was reluctant, now in the Congress president’s absence, he has to rise up to expectations,” said a Union minister, who did not want to be named. Gandhi had held discussions with Singh and other party leaders on Sunday too.
“It’s going to be very tough for Rahul Gandhi. Unless he takes a view himself without depending on the government’s advice, he will not be able to make a mark here. It is an opportunity he has to pick up to capture the mood of the country and show that he has some understanding,” said N. Bhaskar Rao, psephologist and chairman of Centre for Media Studies, a Delhi-based think tank.
Reacting to the latest turn of events, sections of Indian business raised concerns about a possible fallout on business sentiment.
Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry president Harsh Mariwala pointed out that freedom of speech and assembly is one of the fundamental rights of the citizens. “The government action must find the necessary balance that strengthens our democratic institutions and conventions,” he added.
The government faced the ire of the opposition parties in both Houses of Parliament for what they called “murder of democracy”, forcing an abrupt adjournment of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
“This is murder of democracy by the government within the House and outside the House,” said Arun Jaitley, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha and a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament.
BJP president Nitin Gadkari announced the launch of a nationwide agitation on the issue.
The issue has become the latest crisis for Singh and his government, which has been facing fire over a series of scams and near double-digit inflation. The government could not push any of its reform agenda in the last two sessions of Parliament due to protests by the opposition over the scandals.
Economists fear the current crisis would worsen the government’s troubles.
“In the near term, my primary worry is that such things (as the crackdown on Anna Hazare and team) may stall proceedings in the Parliament, which may further delay very important legislations pending. This could have an impact on investment sentiment as everybody was looking for progress on crucial legislations in the Parliament,” said Samiran Chakraborty, India head of research at Standard Chartered Bank.
In both Houses, the treasury benches did not allow the leaders of opposition to raise the matter despite the presiding officer’s permission, maintaining that the home minister should be allowed to give his statement on the developments first.
Leaders of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, the Left parties and the Samajwadi Party united to demand a statement by Singh in Parliament.
The government, however, sought to deflect the criticism. “Nowadays, unfortunately, we are noticing that some of the opposition leaders are making their observations on a particular discussion and thereafter when the questions are replied by the government, they are creating pandemonium and forced an adjournment of the House. This is not fair in parliamentary practice,” said Mukherjee.
“The Delhi Police laid down six conditions on Team Anna. Since these conditions were defied, the police arrested Hazare,” Chidambaram said in a separate media briefing. The conditions included fasting for only up to three days and involving not more than 5,000 people in the protests.
Meanwhile, Hazare’s agitation has drawn more supporters.
BJP member of Parliament Varun Gandhi said he would table the Lokpal Bill drafted by Hazare’s team in Parliament on 19 August as a private member’s Bill. “Parliament is a forum to reflect public opinion and effect meaningful change, not a means to shield autocratic and dishonest governance,” he said in a statement.
The movement has its political critics too. Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and former Union minister Lalu Prasad said Parliament is supreme and Hazare has to wait patiently. “We have seen Anna’s Lokpal draft and we have told him that we will examine it. Anna should have patience,” Prasad said outside Parliament.
Meanwhile, in a setback to the Hazare camp, SMS services were apparently blocked by bulk SMS service providers over concerns expressed by telcos over their allegedly “objectionable” content. There is no official ban on bulk SMSes.
The SMSes have played a crucial role in reaching out to the people to garner support for the campaign.
Sangeeta Singh, Asit Ranjan Mishra, Nidhi Misra, Shauvik Ghosh and Ruhi Tewari contributed to this story.