Arvind Kejriwal’s cellphone doesn’t stop ringing. From the calls that start getting diverted to associate Bibhav Kumar’s phone from 6 am, it’s obvious that the day must start early for the Right To Information (RTI) activist and winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
Courtesy Bibhav Kumar, who acts as the media go-between and vets interviews with Kejriwal, The Hoot spoke to the retired Indian Revenue Service officer who is now an important member of Team Anna’s anti-graft movement.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Your demand for special investigation into corruption charges against the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister, and 13 Cabinet Ministers last month was summarily rejected by the government. Instead it went ahead and proposed Pranab Mukherjee’s name for the country’s top post. A section of the press and Mukherjee himself reacted by calling your opposition to his candidature as “unfair,” and “led by an ulterior motive”. Does all this destroy your faith in democracy, accountability, and principles of justice?
The points raised by you are absolutely correct and it is unfortunate that our ministers consider themselves to be above law. Arrogant and drunk on power, they seem to be directly controlling the investigative machinery that we have today. The allegations raised against them are adequately supported by reports of constitutional bodies such as the CAG, the Supreme Court, etc. These are not new allegations but have been lying in the public domain for a long time. We are only demanding investigation of these charges by an independent body. If an effective Lokpal on the lines of the Jan Lokpal Bill were in place, it would have looked into these allegations in an unbiased manner.
Q. When the movement was at its peak, every attempt was made to discredit you, Shanti Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan, Kiran Bedi, Manish Sisodia, and even Anna Hazare. Has that kind of witch-hunting stopped?
There have been various fabricated allegations against us. However, we feel that these allegations have only strengthened the movement because they have been found to be false. Moreover, Jan Lokpal--or what the people have been demanding so far--will have a direct effect on those who have benefited from the corrupt system. Therefore, although the witch-hunting may not stop, it will not bother those who have nothing to hide.
Q. Do you suspect a deliberate attempt at destroying the credibility of the anti-graft campaigners by a section of the press? What do they hope to gain from this attempt?
We cannot say whose mouthpiece that paper is, or what it hopes to gain from all this, but the timing of the stories and their authenticity (or lack of it) raises serious suspicions in readers’ minds. Most of those “investigative” stories have turned out to be plants or totally fabricated. Like the day when we were supposed to reveal the names of 15 Cabinet Ministers and release documents related to the charges, the newspaper did a story based on a fake letter supposedly written by Annaji – which was mischievous, to say the least.
Q. Is there a concerted effort at causing discord amongst the leading votaries of the movement?
I do not think that is true.
Q. What is your observation on the kind of coverage that the anti-graft movement is getting in the Indian press and on television?
The role of the media has been very significant as far as the Anna Aandolan is concerned.
Q. However, have you observed a difference lately? There has been a kind of petering of interest, a certain derisive, even dismissive, non-serious treatment. What would you attribute this change of heart to?
Whenever our movement has been at its peak, media coverage has been extremely good. Obviously, during a lean period, there are several other issues that come up and are played up prominently in various media channels. Nonetheless, as I mentioned earlier, the Indian media’s role has been very important to our movement.
Q. Is there any significant difference in the kind of coverage that you received during the Right to Information (RTI) campaign and the anti-graft movement that you and Anna Hazare are spearheading now?
Undoubtedly, there is a significant difference in the way the media played up the two campaigns. During RTI campaign their role became important after the RTI Act was passed. They had to subsequently create awareness among the masses. However, in the case of Anna Andolan, the media's role has been important in building up support and momentum for the movement while it’s still on. In addition, it has helped in bringing to the fore people’s anger and frustration against organised corruption and our high tolerance of it.
Q. Would you agree that the internal bickering among anti-graft campaigners has gradually turned the tide against the movement? What is your damage-control on that front?
Since I do not agree with the first part of your assertion, there can be no answer to the second part as well.
Q. Could it be that the masses, the youth in particular with their shorter attention span, are getting restless with the slow pace of progress that you are making and a kind of disenchantment has begun to surface?
The first War of Independence happened in 1857 while we won our Independence in 1947. It took us 90 years to gain Independence. In comparison, the anti-graft movement is only one-and-a-half years old. Give it time. We still have a long way to go.
Q. If things continue to move in this slow fashion, how long do you think you would be able to sustain the interest of the youth and the media in this movement?
What we have undertaken is not a time-bound operation but a complete overhaul of an attitude. We are attempting to build zero tolerance for corruption in any department, any field, public or private. It’s a mass movement started by the common man in the street. In this kind of a movement nothing is predictable. Every outcome is spontaneous. However, looking at the support and enthusiasm of people, the groundswell of opinion in our favour, we feel that this would continue till the Jan Lokpal Bill is passed, eventually.
Q. Earlier several Bollywood stars, socialites, and celebrities had thrown their weight behind the anti-graft campaigners. But your last hunger strike was not a star-studded affair. To make matters worse, what made headlines was not the stalled Jan Lokpal Bill but the lack of any consensus among the campaigners. How would you react to that statement?
You see, we are not doing anything for merely grabbing headlines. That’s not what is important to us, or to any movement, for that matter. In fact, it’s a positive indication that this movement has got common people thinking about the Bill for the first time, and discussing it in detail. That’s what we had set out to achieve and are achieving in a democratic fashion. We believe that the real star of this movement is the man in the street and he is still with us.
Q. In retrospect, it appears that the RTI Act, 2005 also had some fundamental flaws such as the failure to protect the RTI activists. Their identity gets revealed and they become vulnerable to attacks by vested interests. Couldn't there be similar flaws with the Jan Lokpal Bill? You have raised an important issue of public interest, but should not the final draft be left to the people’s representatives?
Attack on RTI activists is a very serious issue. Keeping that in mind, in the Jan Lokpal Bill, we’ve made special provisions for protecting whistleblowers, even though the government draft is silent on this issue. This happens to be one of the major reasons why we are opposing the government draft. The Lokpal Bill has been lying with Parliament for over 40 years now. It never saw the light of the day. It’s unlikely that the current Parliament will pass a strong Lokpal Bill because 162 members of the Lok Sabha and 39 of the Rajya Sabha have serious criminal charges pending against them, waiting to be investigated. Of the 34 Cabinet Ministers, 15 have serious corruption-related issues against them. Will they ever pass a strong Lokpal Bill without a public movement? I seriously doubt it.
Q. Are you satisfied with the direction this movement is taking, or there are introspective moments when you too feel that it’s losing some of its steam? Given another chance, what would you do differently to make this a strong people’s movement?
My personal satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the way the movement is progressing is not important. What is important is the cause. Every movement goes through several transformative phases. In the past one year, we have witnessed people's frustration, helplessness, angst, and intolerance for corruption increase many fold. Janlokpal is the outcome of that. It’s people's demand. They came out into the streets to demand a strong law, and I am positive that they will not stop till their demand is met whatever time it takes.
Q. Apart from the Jan Lokpal Bill, several other important pieces of legislation such as the Women’s Reservation, Electoral Reforms, Police Reforms, Witness Protection Act, etc. have been hanging fire for a long time. What’s common among these Bills? And what’s the threat that they pose to the political class?
We cannot comment on the other Bills because we do not know their specifics. But it’s clear that they have no intention of passing a strong Lokpal Bill because scores of MPs and several ministers have serious corruption-related charges pending against them. If this Bill is passed, most of them will be behind bars.