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Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Team Anna, Kiran Bedi and Hissar: Problematic Calls

Team Anna has chosen to close ranks on the issues that have created some controversy in recent days. Part of this controversy related to its own action in Hissar where it opposed the Congress candidate in the bye-election. The second is members in its 'core group' exhibiting less than high standards of probity it demands of others in public life: Kiran Bedi, one of leading lights of Team Anna fudging air tickets to generate funds for her NGO.

Apart from these two major issues, there has been additional controversy on the funds raised by the movement, which has been deposited in Arvind Kejriwals' NGO and the Kashmir issue that shot to prominence when Prashant Bhushan was assaulted in his chamber by goons belonging to Sri Ram Sene.
Before we analyse the Hissar election and Kiran Bedi's air-ticket issue, let us dispose of the two lesser  issues. As Anna Hazare movement is a single issue campaign, it has drawn diverse sections in its fold. An expectation that all team members will agree on all other issues except corruption is neither a fair expectation nor does it represent the heterogeneity of the group. Whether such a group can survive for long when it will have obviously very different positions on various matters is another matter all together. Kashmir is only one such issue.

Anna Hazare himself runs a regime in Ralegan Siddhi which will be considered completely patriarchal and autocratic by any standards. There have been no elections there for the Panchayat for more than two decades, people are flogged if they violate Anna's code of conduct, liquor, smoking and meat is banned, no films or music other than religious or patriotic can be shown or played – these are some of the aspects of Anna-run Ralegan Siddhi. I am sure if the 'core' members of Team Anna are asked about their views on Ralegan Siddhi, they will probably differ from Anna on this. So Anna's disagreeing with Prashant Bhushan for his views on Kashmir can cause concern only amongst those who view the Anna movement in the guise of a political party. This the Anna movement is certainly not. Anna is entitled to his views on Kashmir just as Prashant is.

That Sri Ram Sene can come and attack Prashant for his views only shows that its past acts of violence has always been condoned. It also shows media in a strange light – every attack by Sri Ram Sene has been captured on TV. This can only happen if TV channels have had advance notice. One must question therefore if the Times Now team's presence in Prashant's chamber was a coincidence or due to advance information given by Sri Ram Sene.

Arvind Kejriwal has explained that as the Anna Movement had no bank account and in any case does not have a constitution and other paraphernalia required to open a bank account, the money therefore was handled for Team Anna by his NGO. This again is credible – if the money had to be kept in the bank and not lying around, it had to be handled by some organisation that has a bank account. Whether this had been discussed in the core team or not, is for the core team to sort out – I do not see any public issue involved here.

Kiran Bedi's air ticket issue is however not as simple or innocuous as she makes it out. Simply put, travelling on one value ticket and charging the host organisation a different one, is deeply problematic on many counts. If she wanted a contribution for her NGO from the host organisation who was inviting her, it would have been a simple matter to ask for a donation to her NGO for her participation.  Or she could have charged a speaking fee and donated it to her NGO. That she chose not to do so and billed for a Business Class ticket, travelled discounted economy and now says that the difference went to her NGO has tax, accounting as well as moral issues.

The host organisations deny that they were told about this arrangement – that she would bill for Business Class and travel on a lower ticket. Press reports indicate that the some of the organisations have denied that they were ever told about this and paid the travel bills in good faith believing that this was the actual expense that she incurred. In any case, paying donation to an NGO through higher travel bill would open various problems for the hosts. A donation is not exempt from tax, but an expense is. There is no way that the host organisation can pay donations in this way. Secondly, some of the host organisation may be receiving foreign funds – if Kiran Bedi's NGO does not have FCRA, no donation can be given to her from such organisations.
Kiran Bedi's NGO has also to answer some serious tax issues. How did they show this income – was it taken from the Travel Agent? Did the Bill from the Travel Agent to the host organisation have a higher value and was the difference given to Kiran Bedi's NGO? All of this has tax implications for both the Travel Agent as well as her NGO. Though the owner of the Travel Agency has now resigned, that he was a member of the Governing body of the NGO makes this a conflict of interest.

Kiran Bedi has shown not an iota of remorse that what she did is at best questionable, at worst a violation of tax laws. Her defence is that as long as she did this not for her personal gain but for her NGO, there is no moral problem. The moral problem still remains if it can be shown that her NGO employs her family members. But certainly the bigger problem is that it is a violation of simple accounting rules and therefore a violation of the tax laws. And laws, Bedi might want to remember are laws, no different for Raja or for her.
NGO funding is not an issue divorced from corruption. A number of government officers today are associated or run NGO's while in service. Their wives or other family members run these NGO's. The Government officers use their influence and power to corner Government projects for these NGO's as well as ask for funds from business houses. Remember Kanimozhi's NGO in the 2G scam?

Beyond the simple issue of financial probity, is the one of complete self-righteousness, which is becoming the unfortunate hall-mark of the Anna movement. In some way, the Ralegan Siddhi model of authoritarian practice – leaders know best and they are above law – is creeping into Team Anna. If this happens, the credibility of the movement will erode as quickly as it has built up.

The Hissar issue is certainly more complicated than any of the other issues raised here. There is little doubt that the net beneficiary of Team Anna's intervention in Hissar was Bhajan Lal's son, Kuldeep Bishnoi, who was supported by the BJP in Hissar. There is little doubt that the fight in Hissar was always between Ajay Chautala, the grand-son of Devi Lal,  of Lok Dal and Kuldeep Bishnoi of the Haryana Janhit Congress. Congress candidate Jai Prakash, a former Minister and a two-times MP was always going to come third in this battle between two scions of the major political families in Haryana. The key issue is what did Team Anna's opposition to Congress achieve?

There is little doubt that Team Anna's call lead to Congress losing some support – its voting percentage came down significantly and politically it has been hurt by the campaign. Kejriwal comes from Hissar and his entry into the electoral scene there has some long-term political significance. It is also a warning to the Congress that if it plays fast and loose with the Lok Pal Bill, it will be hurt and hurt badly in the coming elections. As next year has five states going to polls, it is a potent threat, the brave face that Congress has put on the Hissar defeat notwithstanding.

There is however something which is also disturbing about Hissar. The fact remains that both Chautala and Bishnoi are sitting on a huge amount of money. Both of these families have amassed enormous wealth by virtue of their  political clout in the state. Both of them are prime examples of what is wrong with our political system. One cannot talk about fighting corruption without also knowing what a Kuldeep Bishnoi or a Ajay Chautala stand for. Team Anna therefore lining up behind these two parties for the Hissar bye-election may have driven home a strong message to the Congress, but at some cost to its central message of fighting corruption. The division amongst its ranks on this issue is not merely because of the method used – intervening in elections – but also the choice it made while intervening.

Team Anna will now have to chart the difficult terrain of everyday politics. It will have to make judgement calls on what is moral and what is realpolitik. Like any other political formation, the issues are not going to be straight-forward. While this may provide hazards of one kind, the moral hazard of the Kiran Bedi air travel is relatively simpler. That Team Anna has chosen to overlook it and close ranks behind Bedi does not auger well for retaining its moral capital. And it is only this moral capital that has created the Anna phenomena.


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