Rahul Gandhi joins battle with Hazare

Rahul Gandhi joins battle with Hazare

New Delhi: Asserting his newly anointed leadership role, Congress party general secretary Rahul Gandhi intervened for the first time in the ongoing face-off between the government and social activist Anna Hazare, and attempted to expand the scope of the debate beyond just the promulgation of the Lokpal Bill.

In the process, he has provided the Congress party a much-needed political breathing space, though, as experts point out, this has come at the expense of stealing the stage from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—under fire, including from sections within the Congress, for his handling of the entire agitation.

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Gandhi, who intervened during zero hour in the Lok Sabha on Friday, argued that the Lokpal should be made into a constitutional body that will be independent like the Election Commission of India. But at the same time, if corruption is to be tackled, there would have to be a holistic approach entailing far-reaching reforms to ensure transparency in economic transactions and the electoral funding of political parties. Later, while talking to reporters, he said his proposal was a “game changer".


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The 41-year-old lawmaker from Amethi, considered to be a future prime ministerial candidate of the ruling party, has also risked his political capital by attacking Hazare, who has become an icon for some sections of the country in their fight against graft, for his tactics, saying “individual dictates, no matter how well intentioned, must not weaken the democratic process".

Meanwhile, Hazare, 74, has refused to back down. He has insisted that he will fast until Parliament adopts and passes his version of a new anti-corruption Bill that will create the post of a national ombudsman to monitor senior politicians and bureaucrats. He and his team rejected the Bill, introduced in Parliament earlier this month, as “toothless". The swelling and consistent support for Hazare since he began his hunger strike on 16 August has shocked the government, leaving senior ministers clueless in terms of a strategy to end the stalemate.

Gandhi said: “A tactical incursion, divorced from the machinery of an elected government, that seeks to undo the checks and balances created to protect the supremacy of Parliament sets a dangerous precedent for a democracy." But he thanked Hazare for “helping the people to articulate" their disillusionment.

Gandhi’s speech, which many of his party colleagues termed as “impressive", unlike his earlier performances inside the Lok Sabha and the party plenary forums, received mixed reactions, with one political analyst saying he has already missed an opportunity to prove his leadership qualities by not intervening earlier. Historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha said: “Unlike media, he knows how to confine (himself) to his constitutional role."

Taking on Hazare and his team’s demand for enforcing their version of the anti-corruption Bill, Gandhi maintained that an effective Lokpal law is only one element in the legal framework to combat corruption.

“The Lokpal institution alone cannot be a substitute for a comprehensive anti-corruption code... A set of effective laws is required," he said, calling for legislation to address government funding of elections and political parties, transparency in public procurement, proper regulation of sectors that fuel corruption including land and mining, grievance redressal mechanisms in public service delivery of old-age pensions and ration cards, and continued tax reforms to end evasion. The United Progressive Alliance government’s ambitious tax reforms, including the introduction of a single Goods and Services Tax Bill, have been pending for long.

“We owe it to the people of this country to work together across party lines to ensure that Parliament functions at its optimum capacity and delivers these laws in a just and time-bound manner," he said.

Despite raucous scenes in the Lok Sabha, Gandhi tried to point out the flaws in Hazare’s protests. “Tomorrow, the target may be something less universally heralded. It may attack the plurality of our society and democracy," he said, adding: “India’s biggest achievement is our democratic system. It is the life force of our nation." Gandhi’s severe criticism of the activist and his team came a day after the Prime Minister praised the activist, and his government attempted to reach out to Hazare and his fellow campaigners.

The undisclosed illness of his mother Sonia Gandhi has elevated Rahul Gandhi from just being a general secretary in charge of the party’s youth and student wings to the leadership position. However, he did not join the debate, even when the government and the Congress party were subjected to severe political criticism, especially after Hazare was jailed.

Some experts believe Gandhi’s intervention was too little and too late.

“He missed an opportunity. He should have been much smarter and availed the opportunity to show leadership qualities... His intervention inside the House today was not looking natural. If he had spoken during the discussion on corruption yesterday, it would have been different. The initiatives do not come through as if it’s from a leader," said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of Centre for Media Studies, a Delhi-based think tank.

Although Parliament was expected to debate the Jan Lokpal Bill along with other versions of the Bill, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) protests on the type of debate has disrupted proceedings. While ruling party lawmakers wanted to initiate a short-duration discussion, the BJP insisted it should be done under a rule that provides for voting. The BJP resolution wants the Prime Minister to be included under the ambit of the ombudsman and an independent mechanism for the appointment of the watchdog.

“It seems the government is just not serious about discussing the issue. Till this morning, despite us repeatedly asking them, the government did not make anything clear—what the topic of discussion would be, whether it would be Lokpal or Jan Lokpal, under what rule would the discussion take place, how much time would be allotted to it, etc... There just hasn’t been any clarity or seriousness in the government’s stand, which is why we had to force an adjournment today," said a BJP leader who did not want to be identified.

On Saturday, Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee will initiate a discussion on the Lokpal Bill, which will outline the government’s stand on the Jan Lokpal Bill proposed by the Hazare campaign.

Meanwhile, Hazare announced that he would break his fast only if his demands are met. The three points of difference are the establishment of Lokayuktas in all states, the citizen’s charter and the inclusion of the lower bureaucracy within the ambit of the legislation. “My inner conscience tells me that if there is an agreement in Parliament on all three issues, then I will break my fast... I, along with my supporters, will continue sitting at Ramlila grounds till a decision is not taken on the rest of the issues in Parliament, because this is the voice of the public," Hazare wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister.

Graphic by Sandeep Bhatnagar/Mint

Anuja and Ruhi Tewari, and PTI contributed to this story.