A large part of the blame for the loss of image of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government and its pathetic plight during Anna Hazare’s stir against corruption must be laid at the door of a brigade of lawyers turned politicians cum television bite-givers who arrogantly betrayed their disrespect for democratic norms and provoked nation-wide anger. If those in government were running around like headless chickens in the second half of August, it is only because of the damage done by the ruling alliance’s “TV Tigers”, three of whom were Kapil Sibal, P Chidambaram and Manish Tiwari.

Despite mounting evidence of rampant corruption over the last 12 months, the government has been dragging its feet on every issue and displayed its reluctance to proceed against any of the individuals involved. If eventually Telecom Minister A Raja and the Commonwealth Games (CWG) Organising Committee Chairman Suresh Kalmadi were proceeded against and packed off to jail, it was only because of the day-to-day supervision of investigations by the higher judiciary. The government was unwilling to proceed against them on its own and these three individuals were the principal defenders of the government’s inaction against the corrupt.

Strangely, right through this phase, Mr Manmohan Singh and his colleagues haughtily went about their business as if none of this affect the government or the ruling party, because the next Lok  Sabha election is due only in May, 2014. This is one of the reasons for the gross miscalculation both within the government and the Congress Party over the national mood vis-à-vis corruption. The mood began to change in August, 2010 when the first stories of corruption in the award of contracts relating to the CWG surfaced in the media. These scandals coupled with non-completion of CWG projects in time made international headlines and showed India in poor light. However, even as the people were finding it difficult to digest all the scandalous stories about fraudulent deals when we hosted the games, the 2 G Spectrum Scandal hit the headlines.

The people were shocked when the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reported that the loss caused to the national exchequer by the then Telecom Minister Mr A Raja could be as high as Rs 1.76 lakh crores. However, the government was determined to brazen it out. Starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, many union ministers and Congress leaders argued that there was a lot of exaggeration in the allegations of corruption and wondered why the media was highlighting these issues. Some ministers like Mr Kapil Sibal, who are puffed up by the popularity that comes by way of studio-hopping, began arrogantly questioning not only constitutionally mandated institutions like the CAG, but also the media. The Telecom Minister, Mr Sibal’s most laughable inference that there was “zero loss” in his predecessor’s 2G Spectrum allocation, reinforced the theory that political power often results in a disconnect with reality. We have seen this happen to many persons who become ministers, but what is surprising in Mr Sibal’s case is the speed with which this has happened.

Though Law Minister Veerappa Moily was the Convenor of the joint committee of ministers and civil society representatives, constituted after Anna’s first fast at Jantar Mantar, it was Kapil Sibal who was briefing the media. As his briefings continued, it became clear that the talks were not going anywhere at all. Some of the members of this committee even felt that the progress achieved in-camera were undone by Mr Sibal’s polemics on camera. The government had serious misgivings, and rightly so, in regard to some of the aspects of Team Anna’s proposals. For example, it did not want the Prime Minister and the judiciary to be within the Lok Pal’s ambit. Many individuals and institutions outside government also hold this view. But everyone wanted the government to understand and appreciate the spirit of Anna’s movement. Unfortunately, the interlocutors chosen by the government simply did not have the democratic credentials that were needed to talk to public representatives and civil society.

Imagining their invincibility, several Congress leaders and union ministers launched a scathing attack on Anna a few days before his proposed fast. Since they had got away with defending the indefensible for over a year, they felt emboldened to launch a scathing attack on Anna and deny citizens basic democratic rights. Most citizens found Mr Manish Tiwari’s tirade against Anna (that he is corrupt from head to toe) to be repulsive. That Mr Tiwari is not adequately groomed in the democratic tradition became obvious when he said “too much tolerance” had been shown to Anna Hazare. No democrat will speak so patronizingly about a fellow citizen. Finally, although his own democratic credentials are so suspect, Mr Tiwari went on to claim that Anna’s team comprised on “armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists” and that they were being funded by invisible donors who could have links abroad.

Side by side, Mr Sibal mischievously tried to equate the government with Parliament and claimed that Anna’s satyagraha was anti-Parliament. He and his colleagues argued that the anti-corruption movement posed a threat to the Constitution and went so far as to raise doubts about who was funding the agitation. These arguments came as a chilling reminder of the accusations hurled by Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party against Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-corruption movement in 1974-77. The Congress Party and Indira Gandhi accused JP of challenging the Constitution and of being a CIA agent. Listening to Mr Sibal , Mr Chidambaram and Mr Tiwari, one got the feeling that history was repeating itself.

The Delhi Police imposed 22 conditions on Anna, many of them bordering on the ridiculous, and offered him a small park for his protest for less than three days. As Home Minister, Mr. Chidambaram did his bit to provoke citizens by claiming that it was the prerogative of the Delhi Police to grant or not grant Anna permission to offer satyagraha and to determine the conditions on which such permission would be granted. Only ministers who consider the citizenry to comprise wholly of fools will think that the people will believe something as fatuous as this. But we soon got to know where Mr Chidambaram, Mr Sibal and Mr Tiwari derive their inspiration from when the Prime Minister contemptuously directed Anna to approach the Delhi Police if he was dissatisfied with the venue and the terms and conditions.

Then came the grave announcement on the morning of August 16 by Mr Chidambaram that Anna had been arrested for apprehension of breach of peace. Anna was packed off to Tihar Jail and when the nation reacted with shock and anger, the government quickly capitulated and announced his release. Arrogant ministers in the union government believed Anna would jump at the idea and walk out of Tihar Jail. They were shocked when Anna declared that he would not step out until he was given a proper place for his satyagraha and they did not know what to do or where to look. This is a good example of what can happen when one is overtaken by the arrogance of power.

Finally, the government regained some control over the situation only after the three “TV Tigers” were caged and more seasoned, sober and level headed ministers like Pranab Mukherjee, Salman Khurshid and Vilasrao Deshmukh were assigned the task of talking to Team Anna and resolving the issue. Such has been the public resentment against these
three individuals that the party and the government has ensured their absence from the small screen.

Moral of the story:  The camera can be far more ruthless that despots in government!