Speaking at Sehore, 50 km from Bhopal, Ramdev seconded the position of the government that the PM and Chief Justice of India should be outside the ambit of the proposed Lokpal. “The post of PM and CJI are highly dignified and should not be under Lokpal. I don’t know how appropriate it would be for running democracy if unnecessary attacks are made on these offices.”
The yoga guru’s stand conflicted with the position taken by the Hazare group who had on Monday locked horns with the government over their demand to keep the PM within the jurisdiction of Lokpal Bill, and can provide respite to UPA managers who had a torrid time dealing with civil society’s agitation against corruption.
Significantly, soon after Ramdev’s statement echoing government’s stand, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh publicly appealed to the yoga guru to give up his threatened fast to death from June 4 to bring black money stashed in foreign havens back to India. He promised swift and practical measures to bring offenders to book.
The PM’s appeal was the latest of a number of measures taken by the government to appease the yoga guru who had not long ago been attacked by Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh. The government has sent the CBDT chairman to hold talks with Ramdev, dubbed a spiritual entrepreneur by some and suspected to be a closet saffronite by others, on his demand to ban currency notes of higher denomination. There are also indications that finance minister Pranab may talk to him on this and demand for measures to bring black money back from abroad.
The outreach to Ramdev comes when Anna Hazare group has threatened to walk out of the joint drafting committee on Lokpal, accusing the government of diluting its intent to have a bill passed in the monsoon session of Parliament expected to begin in the third week of July.
While senior ministers P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal denied the government was trying to wriggle out of its commitments, they did suggest the Hazare group’s position on inclusion of the PM, judiciary and actions of MPs in Parliament needed more debate and wider consensus.
With the group pressing for the Central Vigilance Commission and Central Bureau of Investigation to be also subservient to the Lokpal, government indicated that such a “super body” was unlikely to pass muster with the political class. Any bill will have to go through Parliament, government warned.
Faced with questions from reporters whether a split in civil society ranks helped its cause, home minister P Chidambaram dismissed suggestions that such a divide was being engineered as an uncharitable remark. “I think this is the most unkind comment and the least I can say is that it is very, very uncharitable,” he said. He added that former chief justices like Justices J S Verma and M N Venkatachaliah also were of the view that higher judiciary should not be included in the proposed legislation.
But the home minister did stress on divergence in views among civil society members. On more than one occasion, Chidambaram said there was no unanimity on the contentious issues between “civil society, intellectuals, authors” and others as well. All this meant the Hazare group may not have the last word on the bill.
In case Congress wishes to drive a wedge in the civil society camp, it may be helped by rivalry between Ramdev and supporters of Hazare. The Hazare campaign has tried to keep a distance from Ramdev largely because of the suspicion of his pro-RSS inclinations. For his part, the yoga guru had some time ago called Hazare as a leader of Maharashtra, suggesting his own all-India appeal. He also criticized the nomination of father–son lawyer duo of Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan as an instance of nepotism.
The Ramdev camp, which was the first to raise the pitch on black money, has been smarting under the feeling that Hazare’s group upstaged them by launching the fast at Jantar Mantar and by pushing the government on the defensive.
“We were on this yatra on corruption since last year and were caught completely unawares by Anna’s sudden announcement of the fast on April 5 which clashed with Ramnavmi and Baba’s Diksha Diwas,” said Ramdev’s spokesperson S K Tijarawala.
He also said the Hazare camp did not accommodate other sections of civil society in the joint panel. Nor did it object when Congress monopolized the remaining positions, excluding not just the Opposition but even allies.
The manoeuvres to mollify Ramdev and to build him up in relation to Hazare campaign also shows that the government, which had looked at its wit’s end after Hazare’s ambush, is now beginning to get its act together. It has also decided to tap into the anxieties of the political class over the anti-graft activism of civil society, deciding to run by its “no” by other political parties.
Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee on Monday wrote to chief ministers and political parties seeking their comments on Hazare campaign’s demand to put PM and the conduct of MPs inside the Parliament within Lokpal’s jurisdiction. Given the aversion of chief ministers of all stripes to submit themselves to state-level ombudsman, the Lokayukta, and universal insistence on keeping Parliament’s proceedings off limits for outside scrutiny, the replies can only be expected to strengthen government’s bargaining position.