Handling Hazare

What should we make of the UPA government’s management of Anna Hazare’s agitation?

It was a game of political brinkmanship and yesterday, the Indian government came out as the chicken. If saner counsel had prevailed, both Anna Hazare’s group and the Indian government would have stepped back from the brink. However, Mr Hazare’s personal behaviour and in his campaign suggests that what they wish to trigger is a massive public agitation, ostensibly against corruption, but generally against the ‘government’. It is likely that this was the realisation that caused the government to attempt to pre-empt the agitation planned for August 16th, rather than allow it to proceed, as is usually the practice. For instance, both Mr Hazare and Baba Ramdev were allowed to conduct public protests, while the government limited itself to responding to them.

But yesterday, the government’s strategy backfired. With Mr Hazare refusing to come out of Tihar jail, the brinksmanship has been taken to another level. In 24 hours, the “issue” has turned from a “strong Lok Pal bill” to “the right to protest peacefully”. This change in the way the issue is framed makes it extremely difficult for any government, especially this one, to continue the confrontation. So it’s likely to have to let Mr Hazare carry the day.

What should we make of this?

First, whether or not the government acted within its constitutional limits is for the courts to decide. It is quite likely that the matter will end up in the Supreme Court, as it should.

Second, whether or not the UPA government was justified in acting as it did, even if within constitutional limits, is a political question. That is a matter for us citizens to decide. Those who believe that it ought not to have acted pre-emptively in such a case must punish it electorally, whether by demanding mid-term elections or voting it out in 2014.

Third, we must not conflate the government’s legitimate authority with its political wisdom. This is because we do want governments to retain the powers to maintain public order and ensure national security. Not all political violence starts off that way. It is extremely difficult for police and law enforcement authorities to know, before hand, if an ostensibly peaceful protest will end up in violence. It would be imprudent to deny police the powers to make preventive detentions or indeed to use force to ensure order.

Fourth, the government’s mishandling of its response to Mr Hazare’s methods does not make his demands any more sensible or legitimate. As this blog has consistently, Lok Pal is a bad idea. It is unacceptable for him to blackmail a democratic republic by threatening to commit suicide. The greatest tragedy of this all is the fact that Mr Hazare sparked the attention, imagination, patriotism and passion of so many Indians not only to demand a stupid and dangerous law but to do so using the grammar of anarchy.