Monday, September 12, 2011

Sonia Gandhi’s Dilemmas

Ailing Congress Party head faces a host of dilemmas

Sonia Gandhi, the president of India’s Congress Party, has just returned from cancer surgery in New York. Her absence during the public fast and nationwide protests led by India’s new hero Anna Hazare, led to government confusion and humiliation. Congress and the government are in retreat with no effective counter-strategy.

No one knows how sick the 64-year-old Gandhi is. After her treatment for what was said to be cervical cancer at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the surgery was said to be a success. The five-year survival rate for all types of cervical cancer is 92 percent if it is caught early.

As head of her party Gandhi has to deal with the following challenges: How to fashion a Lokpal bill, or citizen ombudsman bill, which would have sufficient teeth to chill elected crooks but not allow mob justice? What happens if it results in full scale investigations of Congress politicians? What if Hazare resumes his public fast as he has threatened to do, if his version of the Lokpal Bill is not passed into law?

Can she still steer her son Rahul, now 42, to the prime ministership? Given his wooden response to the Hazare phenomenon, he may be damaged goods already. Who else is there with credibility to lead Congress and the government? What about the next election? Is Congress not guaranteed to be turfed out already? After Sonia, who?

All too much for one just recovering from cancer surgery.

Both the Indian government and its Congress Party leadership failed to read the deep public resentment against the corrupt political class, with disastrous results. They arrested the 74-year old Hazare and his small band of followers. That catapulted him into the national consciousness and fanned public outrage.

Then the country's shrill TV stations turned him into a celebrity with 24-hour coverage and panel punditry. Twitterati and Facebook activists spread viral messages of a corrupt power structure victimizing an old man who dared to protest.

Then the government spin masters falsely accused Hazare and his team of tax evasion, corrupt land deals and more. He challenged them to charge him.

That jolted the urban middle class, NGOs, youth and the unemployed to join the rising public outcry. They found ready targets in a morally bankrupt Congress-led government beset with massive unresolved scandals. The police were instructed to release Hazare with conditions. Hazare ignored all the conditions and started a public fast at the Ramlila Maidan in the national capital.

Hazare's campaign managers were seasoned media minds and legal experts. They turned him into the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi. Hazare subsequently launched a 'second revolution' to rid the nation of what he called the new oppressors of the people. The blow-up poster of Gandhi dominated the raised dais on which the frail Hazare undertook his fast. The campaign linked Hazare and the revered Mahatma in TV images beamed to the nation. His team lobbied the 'Jan Lokpal' Bill to replace the 'toothless' government version.

T-shirts, Gandhi caps, dancing performances, Bollywood stars and pop-songs entertained the crowds. It turned into a national carnival with demonstrations in several cities across the country.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh capitulated with the full support of the Opposition benches, on the 12th day of Hazare's fast, fearing his death on stage would unleash mob outrage against Parliament and all its representatives. Singh agreed in principle to accept all his demands.

The government bought time by passing his bill to the house standing committee to vet along with other submissions.

Hazare's bill seeks to set up an independent bureaucracy to vet public complaints against state legislators and members of parliament, police, judges, ministers and prime minister. No one is exempt. Fast justice is to be meted out. The guilty would be imprisoned and their assets seized.

There is no separation of powers between investigation, prosecution and sentencing. The administration of the Jan Lokpal, as Hazare envisages it, is a law unto itself. It answers to no one. There are no external checks and balances. There is no independent appeal process. Who will guard the guards is unanswered.

The mischief of the political class aside, there is every danger of this supra-government, moralistic crusade degenerating quickly into vendettas, revenge, false accusations and witch hunts on a national scale. Revolutions and jihads throughout history have shown how power unchecked turns into mass abuse.

The Congress Party finds itself on the wrong side of the debate. It has projected itself as willing to use heavy boots to stop the people's call for clean government. It has been forced into the losing position of protecting corrupt practices. Perception is everything in politics. Congress is unlikely to be voted back into office.

Rahul Gandhi stumbles

In the leadership vacuum left by Sonia Gandhi's emergency cancer surgery in New York, Rahul Gandhi was presented with a golden opportunity to rise to the occasion. He failed to seize the moment.

Worse, he recited a wooden, flat script in Parliament warning against usurping the role of elected lawmakers. Instead of co-opting the national energy against the intransigence of the 'old politics', he positioned himself as part of the problem.

The educated youth who form a growing demographic voting block in India, cannot any longer look to Rahul Gandhi for inspiration. He failed them at the most crucial moment. He may well be toast. The youth turned instead to the leadership of a 74-year anti-corruption crusader.

By Cyril Pereira

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