Tainted 'Team Anna' lurches into disarray
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - India's anti-corruption campaign led by 74-year-old social activist
Anna Hazare is in a state of disarray. ''Team Anna,'' its core committee seems
to be imploding. With members facing allegations of corruption and others
quitting in disgust with the ''authoritarian'' functioning of the committee,
its credibility in the eyes of the public is on the wane, forcing it to go on
Charges of financial irregularities have been leveled against core committee
members, Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal. A former top cop who famously towed
away the official car of prime minister Indira Gandhi for a parking violation,
Bedi, who now runs a non-governmental organization (NGO), was found to be
fudging travel bills in a variety of ways.
She purchased air tickets on deep discounts that she is entitled to as a winner
of a national gallantry award but billed her hosts the full fare, traveled
economy class but claimed business fares, and traveled for one host but billed
the same flight to more than one organization. What she did was not just
inflating bills. She might have violated tax laws.
Kejriwal, Hazare's right-hand man and increasingly his minder, has been accused
by former core committee member Swami Agnivesh of diverting roughly US$162,000
of public donations to the anti-corruption campaign to his own NGO, the Public
Cause Research Foundation (PCRF).
Kejriwal has been charged by the government too of not paying up roughly
US$18,000 to the government for violating service rules when he was an employee
of the Indian Revenue Service.
Not only have Kejriwal and Bedi not displayed the high standards of integrity
they demand of others in public life, but worse, both have justified their
actions. Bedi, for instance, claimed that the difference in fare - the excess
amounts collected - went to her NGO, India Vision Foundation, not into her
personal pocket. She claimed she was ''entitled'' to travel business but
endured economy class to save money to help children, refusing to accept that
inflating bills is corruption.
As for Kejriwal, he says that since ''India Against Corruption'' is a
''movement'' and not an organization, a bank account in IAC's name was not
possible, hence the diversion of funds to PCRF. While that may be so, people
donated money to IAC, not PCRF. Kejriwal was opaque over his handling of public
India Against Corruption, a movement to bring in Lokpal (ombudsman) legislation
to tackle corruption, captured the imagination of middle-class India. It tapped
into public anger over a series of massive scams involving ministers, officials
etc that came to light over the past year. A 13-day fast by Hazare in August
was successful in forcing the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to
agree to introduce a Lokpal bill in the upcoming winter session of parliament.
But barely two months after that success, ''Team Anna'' is struggling to hold
together, under fire from within and without.
A shoe was hurled at Kejriwal at a public meeting. Eminent Supreme Court lawyer
Prashant Bhushan was beaten up by right-wing elements for expressing support
for a plebiscite in Kashmir. But more damaging to its unity are the allegations
made by insiders.
Its decision to campaign against the Congress Party in recent by-elections to
the Hissar constituency in north India has resulted in at least two members,
Rajendra Singh and P V Rajagopalan, quitting the committee. Kejriwal and others
campaigned against the Congress candidate, thereby indirectly enabling the
victory of Kuldeep Bishnoi, who was backed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata
Team members are unhappy with its entry into electoral politics. Santosh Hegde,
a former Supreme Court judge, has said that Kejriwal did not consult committee
members on the decision. Singh has accused the core committee of straying from
its goal of fighting corruption to become a ''bunch of power brokers''. He has
criticized the absence of ''inner democracy'' in the core committee's
The authoritarian streak in the campaign was evident from its start. In
demanding a supra-parliamentary institution as a watchdog, it was subversive of
Hazare's repeated threats to the government that he would go on a fast unless
it accepted ''his'' bill was deeply coercive. His approach to negotiations with
the government was inflexible. Early in the campaign he spoke in favor of
awarding the death sentence to the corrupt, revealing a deep illiberal streak.
Hazare's testy response to Bhushan's support for a plebiscite in Kashmir has
laid bare his intolerance of views different from his own. He dismissed
Bhushan's view as ''incoherent'' and said he was considering whether to keep
him in his team or not. He was ''ready to take part in war against Pakistan''
to protect India's territorial integrity, he declared.
A former driver in the Indian army, Hazare participated in the 1965
India-Pakistan war. In the years since he has worked for village upliftment.
His village of Ralegaon Siddhi in Maharashtra is described as a model of
sustainable development. Yet the violence that was used to achieve at least
some of this change is worrying.
No one drinks or smokes in Ralegan Siddhi. That was achieved by tying
alcoholics to trees and flogging them. Besides, people are expected to live
according to Hazare's vision of a ''good life''. They are allowed to watch only
religious and patriotic films and forbidden to eat meat.
Hazare's team has projected him as Gandhi II and the anti-corruption campaign
as India's second freedom struggle. The only things that are Gandhian about
Hazare are his attire, simple lifestyle and focus on village upliftment. Unlike
Gandhi, who was small-built and frail but a man of big ideas and immense
vision, Hazare is a small man with little understanding of the workings of a
representative democracy. His supporters and the media have made him out to be
a giant. While Bedi observed that ''Anna is India and India is Anna'', Kejriwal
has gone on record saying that Hazare is above parliament.
With "Team Anna" coming under fire from all fronts, there is speculation that
the government's ''dirty tricks department'' might be behind the wave of woes
it is experiencing in recent weeks. Are the revelations about the dirty deeds
of committee members aimed at embarrassing them?
While it is likely that the government is behind the systematic leaks of
information and is doing its utmost to undermine the credibility of "Team Anna"
members in the eyes of the public, the movement's current problems lie within
Its goal to rid India of corruption was not wrong, neither was its anger with
the political class. But in putting themselves on a pedestal as perfect
guardians, displaying a holier than thou arrogance and refusing to admit on
board other views, team members set themselves up for self-destruction. Their
narrow perception of corruption as that which only politicians indulge in - and
not corporates, NGOs and media - was deeply flawed.
At a time when the world expects him to pronounce his views on the crisis
gripping the campaign, Hazare has gone silent. He is on a maun vrit (vow
of silence) ostensibly to rejuvenate his health that was weakened by the fast.
His critics say that the decision to go on a maun vrit must have come
from a realization that he has been talking too much, and in the process
created and deepened fissures within the team.
After riding the wave for several months, the campaign against corruption seems
to have crashed into a whirlpool, sucked into a mess of its own making.
It has avoided self-destruction for now by papering over the cracks and
reaffirming commitment to fighting corruption at a recent core committee
''Probe us, hang us if you feel we are tainted, but bring the Lokpal Bill,''
Kejriwal thundered in an interaction with the media, threatening that ''the
next movement will be 10 times bigger [than the one in August].''
His threats have not unsettled the government this time around. The scales it
seems are tilting in the government's favor.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)