The Tribune

Govt was oblivious of public anger for too long in governance, what matters most is public perception. Ministers must not only be honest but also perceived to be so. Right now, quite the opposite is true CounterPoint Amar Chandel


IT is said that when a pigeon sees a cat, it simply closes its eyes instead of flying off. Since the cat is not visible to it with eyes closed, it feels smug that the danger has receded.


The government did something quite similar in the face of the rising public revulsion over the omnipresent corruption and ignored it for too long. It thought that the voices of protests were just storms in teacups which could be easily ignored, or, better still, suppressed through tried and tested strong-arm tactics. That is why it came to the stage where it had to eat crow on the Anna Hazare issue. Drunk on power, its leading lights ensconced in bungalows in Lutyen's Delhi never realised that Anna was only a symbol of the public anger. If it would silence his voice, somebody else would take his place.


Worse than unleashing the police might against him was the vilification campaign. Manish Tiwari's fulmination that he was corrupt from head to toe was the ideal oil to the fire. The aggression proved counter-productive and helped broaden the protests, which otherwise might have been far less severe.


Had the government been upright, this might have passed off as "firmness". But at the hands of the mega scam-tainted UPA government, it was only seen as haughtiness, which proved to be its undoing.


'Empire strikes back'


Ironically, there is a pattern to this "Empire Strikes Back" syndrome. All sort of enquiries are started against those who dare to say that the government is corrupt. Ramdev was a saint till he protested. Even Lalit Modi was fine till he blew the whistle on minister Shashi Tharoor in the IPL imbroglio. The message that went out loud and clear was that if anyone dared to protest against corruption in the government, he himself would be hauled over coals. If Anna Hazare's fast was blackmail, so was this tit for tat, and helped in adding indignation to public anger.


The government made another tactical error. What was revulsion towards the politicians in general was allowed to be focused on the government alone by keeping away the opposition parties from the preliminary negotiations with Team Anna on the Bill. No party can claim to be squeaking clean but the ill-thought-out policy of the government gave them a chance to strike a holier-than-thou attitude. Not only that, it brought almost the entire Opposition together. The more the government shouted that the campaign was an opposition conspiracy, the more isolated it found itself.


Even now, it is not too late to realise that corruption by a government functionary is the fountain-head of all corruption. When a minister takes his 10 per cent (if not more), he is giving an open general licence to the contractor to use substandard material. When a bureaucrat takes money on the sly for appointments and postings, he is making all his subordinates employ unfair means.


The public is in a cleft-stick and one has to shell out money even to get what is one's right. While the common man who is forced to pay a tidy sum to get his revenue record or driving licence or ration card in time is given sermons that he should be honest, hardly anything is done to those who demand and accept this bribe. Ironically, he is told that he is equally culpable. That is adding insult to injury.


Scratching the surface


When a man has to pay bribes even to get his due, he is encouraged to curry special favours from government functionaries by offering illegal gratification.


A few cases of action against corrupt officials are cited as the shining examples of a clean-up drive. Given the size of the country and the extent of corruption, these do not even constitute the scratching of the surface. In any case, even the action against men like Kalmadi and Raja came about after nationwide hue and cry.


In governance, what matters most is public perception. Ministers must not only be honest but also perceived to be so. Right now, quite the opposite is true. So many politicians have gone from rags to riches in such a short time that the entire class stands discredited in the public eye. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that Mr Manmohan Singh's legendary honesty is being seen as no more than a mask behind which various ministers are looting the country. This image can be salvaged only through genuine action on the ground, not by unleashing legal eagles on the likes of Anna Hazare.


The Jan Lokpal Bill may have many flaws. Perhaps it is not the answer to the problem of corruption in the country. Anna Hazare's fast may amount to "blackmail". But what cannot be lost sight of is that it came after a never-ending cycle of scams, scandals and corruption.


The government should have seized the initiative with an even more potent Bill of its own, and made Team Anna redundant in the process. Instead, it came up with a hopelessly diluted "Jokepal Bill" and ended up smearing its own face with the accusation that it was going all out to protect the wrong-doers.


The UPA should consider itself lucky that the protests are being spearheaded by Gandhian crusaders. If it continues to sideline them, there is a very real danger of the movement passing into the hands of the people who have no respect for non-violent means. That is a possibility which every right-thinking person should be frightened of.


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Copyright © 2013 Amar Chandel