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UPA surrenders to Anna

Social activist Anna Hazare during his fast-unto-death against rampant government corruption at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Raghu rai

he UPA government had flatly refused to concede the Anna Hazare-led civil society group's demands on the Lokpal Bill when talks began between both sides a month ago, but within four days of the fast till death, which triggered off an anti-corruption movement throughout the country, it caved in on all counts. Shaken by the popular support for Hazare across India, a panicky government tried to brazen it out on the first day of the fast. By the time the fast entered the fourth day it rushed to make clear that it was willing to concede not just a joint drafting committee of five Ministers and five civil society members, but also a co-chairperson and a government notification for the same. It also accepted a time frame and agreed to introduce the new Lokpal Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament.

It has been a long struggle for the Hazare group, which faced pressure from the Prime Minister himself to call off the scheduled fast, and also had to ward off attempts to divide the activists at different levels. During the five day fast the Hazare core group – Swami Agnivesh, RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal, lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former cop Kiran Bedi – worked around the clock to fend off rumours spread by Congress party managers, ranging from the allegation that the RSS was behind the movement to charges against Hazare for being "overly ambitious."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh convened a meeting on March 7 to urge Anna Hazare not to go on a fast. Since then negotiations have been held between largely the same players including Ministers A.K. Antony, Kapil Sibal, Veerappa Moily, Salman Khursheed, V. Narayansamy and political secretary to the Congress president Ahmed Patel from the government. The civil society group is represented by Hazare, Shanti Bhushan and the others named above. From the beginning, their demand was for a joint drafting committee for the Lokpal Bill. The government refused to concede to the demand, saying nothing could be done about the Bill till May 13, after the Assembly elections were over. Rejecting the demand flatly, the government agreed to a consultation on March 25.

On March 28 a meeting was convened by Defence Minister A.K. Antony. Here other groups allegedly fighting corruption were present and Hazare and his supporters were given the clear message that if they did not agree to drop the fast, the government would enter into an agreement with the other groups reportedly fighting for the "same cause." Hazare did not agree and made it clear to his supporters later that he would have to go on fast to ensure that the demand for a joint drafting committee was met. The government showed no interest after this attempt to manage Hazare, remaining categorical that civil society intervention in the Lokpal Bill would not be accepted in any form.

Hazare began his fast till death at Jantar Mantar on April 5. Initially the National Advisory Council chaired by Sonia Gandhi was put into the act, and a meeting was convened by members Harsh Mander and Aruna Roy on the issue of corruption and the Lokpal Bill. Significantly the discussion was on the Jan Lokpal Bill drafted by former Law Minister Shanti Bhushan and not on the government's Lokpal Bill. The NAC, however, did not agree to the Hazare group's demand for a more proactive role for civil society, and the meeting ended inconclusively. Members of the Hazare group felt this was another attempt to "manage us somehow" without giving anything in return.

Meanwhile the fast ignited India and demonstrations began in all parts of the country, even as the crowds surged around Hazare at Jantar Mantar. The movement was gathering ground and after more than a day's silence, Minister Kapil Sibal invited Swami Agnivesh for talks. Salman Khursheed was also present. The Ministers agreed to a joint committee. Agnivesh returned to announce the same to Hazare but at this stage a more cautious Kejriwal intervened to point out that the government could not be trusted, and a government order was essential before the fast could be broken. The government was reluctant and offered a letter from the Union Law Minister instead. Hazare refused and it took another day for the government to concede this demand.

The Hazare group remained steadfast, and insisted also that the chairperson should be from among them. The government objected saying that as per the protocol the drafting committee would then have to comprise bureaucrats and not the ministers. The civil society negotiators then came up with the co-chairperson proposal that the government rejected, but then had little choice but to accept.

Rumours were constantly tackled from the dais. The first rumour that spread on the second day in particular was that the RSS was behind the agitation. So when RSS leader Ram Madhav appeared at the site with Baba Ramdev and requested time to speak, he was told by the organisers "very politely" to leave. Again in the midst of negotiations the Congress spread the allegation that Hazare was "ambitious" and wanted to become the co-chairperson of the drafting committee. Hazare was informed, and he strongly denied this from the dias. "There was this constant hammering at us, and it is only when nothing worked, and the spontaneous movement grew with the speed of lightening, that the government finally realised it had no choice, and accepted everything we said," the sources said.

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