Has India's government lost the plot on corruption?

Baba Ramdev Image copyright AP
Image caption Baba Ramdev has vowed to continue his fast

Has the Congress-led government of India lost the plot?

Going by the events of the past week, it would appear so.

First, in an act which many believe was one of embarrassing pusillanimity, it sent four of its most senior ministers to the airport to receive and talk with yoga guru Baba Ramdev when he arrived in Delhi to begin his anti-corruption hunger strike. Things fell apart quickly and soon, a senior Congress functionary was openly calling the yoga guru a "a thug". If they believe that, why negotiate with him in the first place?

When the negotiations failed, the government accused the guru of reneging on his promises. They then sent in the police in the middle of the night to break up the fast, baton charge and tear gas the assembled supporters and evict the guru from the capital.

In this spectacular tragicomedy the yoga guru tried to flee the ground where he was holding the fast dressed like a woman. But it is the government's credibility, which has become the biggest casualty.

For one, it is clear that most Indians don't believe that the government is serious about cracking down on graft. Talks with anti-corruption campaigners on drafting a strong ombudsman bill have reportedly run into difficulties with the government reluctant to include the prime minister's office under the purview of the law.

The recent highly publicised moves against corruption in India - the Commonwealth Games scam and the telecom licences scandal - have been all been prompted by a vigilant and increasingly exasperated Supreme Court, which has kept the investigative agencies on a tight leash. The government, most believe, has had little role to play here.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Critics wonder why the BJP was silent about corruption when it was in power

While the Congress party has been making noises about its intent to combat graft, it has allowed Vilasrao Deshmukh, a minister who was found guilty by the Supreme Court of abusing his authority, to continue and even gave him a key promotion.

No wonder then that most Indians don't believe the Congress party is serious, particularly when it comes to its own people.

And when a government shows little resolve to declare a war on graft and pussyfoots on a strong ombudsman bill, anybody - from gurus to activists - can literally take on the government and be tempted to blackmail it. Meanwhile, many are puzzled that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, the country's two most powerful leaders, have not spoken out on the events of the weekend. Silence is not golden when it comes to placating an increasingly angry India.

At the same time, say independent analysts, the main opposition BJP has also not exactly covered itself with glory by backing Baba Ramdev and now holding protests against corruption. Commentators ask why the BJP government, which was in power for five years, did virtually nothing to act on graft. There are already allegations that the party has "outsourced" it protests to people like Baba Ramdev - who makes no bones about his Hindu nationalist leanings.

With both the ruling and the main opposition party shying away from their responsibilities, Indian democracy could be in peril.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Prime Minister Singh (m) and Sonia Gandhi have been silent

Many ask whether the problem lies with India's politicians. Have they become lazy, content to reach out to people from the comfortable confines of TV news studios? Have they begun to lose touch with reality?

So what can be done now? One newspaper says that the government should immediately convene a special session of parliament and hold a thorough debate on corruption and the ombudsman bill.

The newspaper said the government had "ceded all debate" to street brawls. It is now time, the newspaper said, to return to the parliament for a considered debate on the subject. And if the Congress wants to stop its slide, it needs to show that it is serious about tackling graft. Agreeing to a strong, focussed ombudsman bill would possibly be a good beginning, many believe.

PS: PM Manmohan Singh finally spoke on the crackdown on Monday evening. "It is unfortunate that the operation had to be conducted, but quite honestly, there was no alternative," he said. The opposition demands nothing short of an apology in what is fast becoming an ugly, partisan political spat.