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Picking up the Bill

Procrastination is the not-so-fine art of delaying things. Doing a rush job is the even less celebrated art of, well, rushing through things. Chanakya writes.

india Updated: Dec 17, 2011 22:50 IST
Chanakya

Procrastination is the not-so-fine art of delaying things. Doing a rush job is the even less celebrated art of, well, rushing through things. While on paper these two methods of action seem disparate and opposite to each other, if you look closely, the pull-and-push mechanism of delay-and-hurry can form one strategic pattern: sit on something for a long time, and then when you're being badgered from all sides for sitting too long, you can complain bitterly about being made to hurry and being forced to do a bad job.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the Lokpal Bill drama. As we approach the 'final lap' of a long distance run that has seen digressions, backtrackings, scurryings and slow-motion, it is evident that the government and its minders have been goaded on to table and pass the Lokpal Bill within the end of this winter session by Anna Hazare and his agit-prop artists and there's no turning back now.

Last week, we saw politicians sit around a big table and thrash out points of difference in the Lokpal Bill. The Opposition, in particular, finally aired its views not inside TV studios but sitting across Congress and government faces. Coming to a consensus is no longer the tricky part. Frankly, it wasn't the real issue all along. Parliamentarians, as a tribe, are still nervous about firming up an empowered lokpal. 'Doing things in a rush' was the last excuse from the government. This has been rejected by the opposition parties. Earlier, they had sulked, with reason, about not being consulted on the Bill. However, once they were brought into the picture - most visibly through the all-party parliamentary standing committee on the lokpal - strategists from the Opposition started insisting that Hazare's deadline be kept. Why this sudden flowering of great intent, considering that till this last lap, the BJP and the Left were quiet on the issue of 'We want the Lokpal now!'?

Because things have boiled down to who takes the credit.

Till the recent stirrings in Parliament, the Lokpal Bill was being moulded and directed by 'outsiders'. The Opposition's latest enthusiasm over the Bill is less about re-establishing Parliament's responsibility (read: authority) and more about reclaiming the role of the Opposition from the streets - especially at a time when the Anna's campaign doesn't seem to be running on a full tank any more.

The only thing shorter than public memory is public enthusiasm. There are signs already that the wave of gleeful support that Hazare commanded in the earlier phases of his 'movement' has somewhat subsided. Perhaps swayed by his own wagging finger or baited by sound-bite-collecting journalists (and most likely both), Hazare himself has played a considerable role in this dip in public enthusiasm. But it's more than just his dire pronouncements on drunkards, FDI in retail and crazies attacking ministers that have got people less gung-ho about rallying round the Anna totem pole. The sheer duration of the lokpal agitation has made many in the vocal middle-class tire. Very few will actually say, "Oh, now I'm bored by the issue", but would rather couch it with utterances such as "I don't like his strategy of launching a hunger strike on every issue", or "Anna's movement is more political in nature now. This will dilute the primary agenda." But Anna may have just started boring his constituency.

Which is where the politicians - especially those in Opposition - see an opportunity to reclaim what is theirs: legitimacy as law-makers. It's too late for them to argue a case against the lokpal ("a giant, overpowering, parallel burea-ucracy"). To be seen as a lokpal naysayer now will make them seem as being pro-corruption.

The Opposition's insistence on getting the Bill passed by the year-end is genuine. As a senior BJP politician told me, "Of course we don't want any more delay. There isn't any logic to the government wanting more time. This is a continuation of their confusion." Ah, the luxury of opposing a delay while knowing that a delay will seriously endanger the government.

Last week we saw non-UPA politicians share stage space with Hazare. Part of this exercise was to be seen as fellow participants in the lokpal demand; and part of it was to, paradoxically, undermine Anna's essentially anti-politician campaign. ("If Anna wants to fight corruption why does he solicit support of politicians of the opposition party?" was one response from the 'citizenry'.) On Team Anna's part, this is a move away from its earlier 'no politicians' diktat and is a grudging acceptance that the campaign has already peaked and will be reined in by politicians.

The UPA is fighting on two fronts: finger-wags and threats from the Anna gang and hollers and thumping fists from opposition parties. Which is why the UPA has switched from its old position of delaying things and now intends to bring in the Bill over the next few days so that the BJP - ready with its new 'Chidambaram must quit!' chant - doesn't get too much credit for the Bill. In any case, 'We got the people's Lokpal through' sounds so much more full of possibilities than 'We were forced by the Opposition to push the Lokpal through'.