For the past few days and in a desperate attempt to counter the middle-class euphoria over Anna Hazare, a beleaguered Congress has been cashing many of the IOUs it has accumulated over the past seven years.
NAC member Harsh Mander, the unchallenged King of sanctimoniousness and the great proponent of communal budgeting of state resources, has denounced Anna’s crusade as “a Right-leaning, fascist campaign to push for an extremely regressive legislation”. Aruna Roy, another NAC member and the Queen Bee of the NGO movement, has proffered her own version of outsourced legislation — one that apparently travels the middle path between the official Lokpal Bill and Anna’s Jan Lokpal Bill. To cap it all, former Infosys chief and the present head of the UID scheme (with the status of a Cabinet Minister) has made TV appearances expressing his unhappiness with the “uni-dimensional” approach of Team Anna and the need for a “much more strategic, holistic” approach.
Nilekani’s critique of the Anna movement can’t be dismissed lightly. He issued a testimonial to Indian parliamentary democracy and particularly the functioning of parliamentary committees. At the same time, he mocked the simplistic bantering that has characterised Team Anna: “Which Kool-Aid are they drinking?” Kool-Aid, I was informed by Wikipedia, is a “brand of flavoured drinks owned by Kraft Foods.” Nilekani could, perhaps, have been less global with his choice of metaphors to state his astonishment with Team Anna’s certitudes. Yet, if Twitter is any indication, he was berated for allowing himself to become a “mouthpiece” for the Government. A few months ago, India’s middle-class twitterati would have treated every word and sentence he uttered as Gospel truth. Today, he is being viewed as part of the rotten elite that is beholden to the Government. It wasn’t what he said that was questioned but why he chose to go public now.
In the coming days, and irrespective of whether the Anna campaign turns more strident or begins wilting, the Government bid to create a less excitable public mood will intensify. From August 16 to the installation of Anna in Ram Lila Maidan three days later, the entire focus was on the Government’s ill-conceived preventive detention, the assault on the Government in Parliament and its unconditional surrender to Team Anna. The Government stood discredited, with a large omelette on its face and its authority in shreds. Most important, for three days the Government successfully turned a populist, anti-corruption movement into an anti-Congress movement. In just three days, the Congress frittered away the goodwill of Middle India.
Yet, no Government capitulates so easily. Manish Tewari’s assault on the integrity of Anna Hazare didn’t click and neither did Rashid Alvi’s comic attempt to locate an American hand behind the movement. At the same time, the abrupt elevation of Anna into a “hero” and “hero of heroes” by Sanjay Nirupam and Harish Rawat has looked patently disingenuous, coming as it did with the news that the Government actually wanted to ‘deport’ Anna back to his village in Maharashtra on August 16. The Congress (and, in fact, most political parties) often forget that people aren’t fools and will believe whatever drivel is served to them. It is easier to persuade courtiers to forgive past sins and come to the aid of the party than to regain lost public goodwill instantly.
I can say with near certainty that the next few weeks will see reports of weariness with street protests, exasperation with unreasonable politics, the unresponsiveness of minorities and Dalits to middle-class protests and, finally, the silent majority’s wish that the Government gets on with the job of governing. Apart from the difficulties of maintaining sustained interest in one story, the media too is susceptible to official cajoling and arm-twisting. This matters in times of economic difficulties.
On August 20, for example, Government departments issued 69 advertisements spread over 41 pages in 12 daily English newspapers to commemorate Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary. It is said that the total expenditure for this occasion last year was between Rs 60 crore and 70 crore. And this was a commemoration that excluded the electronic media. When that is brought into the purview of campaigns like Bharat Nirman and advertisements made by agencies with close ties to daughters-in-law and nephews of Ministers, the sums involved can be mind boggling. In short, it doesn’t make business sense for the media to persist with the shrill anti-Government campaign of the past week. This isn’t a matter of politics; it’s prudent business.
In the coming days, the stage will be set for Team Anna to undertake suicide missions and become increasingly reckless. Actually, that is not asking for too much. The sight of doting crowds spontaneously assembled, 24x7 news coverage and a belief in their own manifest destiny can turn many heads. Kiran Bedi’s “India is Anna” remark, Prashant Bhushan’s sneering espousal of plebiscitary democracy that is calculated to generate anarchy, Swami Agnivesh’s slipperiness and Anna’s own innocent understanding of public life will come under sustained gaze. The hyenas are waiting for them to slip up, and slip up they will. The Anna movement may well falter, but will it restore the Government’s credibility? That, unfortunately, is history. Unless a political miracle takes place, India seems set for a long innings of lame-duck governance. Anna may not get to taste success, but he has begun the halal killing of this Government.
Sunday Pioneer, August 21, 2011