Indian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare began a three-day public fast in Mumbai as parliament debated legislation to curb graft that his group of activists and opposition parties have dismissed as too weak.
The level of support for Hazare’s renewed protest will be monitored by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government as it seeks to win support among lawmakers for one of the most divisive bills of his premiership. About 4,000 people attended the protest today, the NDTV 24x7 news channel reported citing police officials it didn’t name, a smaller crowd than those Hazare’s August hunger strike in New Delhi pulled in.
“The government has betrayed the people,” Hazare told supporters from the protest stage. “One day the public will teach them a lesson.” His 13-day fast four months ago generated nationwide rallies and forced Singh to abandon plans to push through an earlier draft of the so-called Lokpal bill.
The Congress-led federal government headed by Singh has been damaged by graft scandals including those linked to a 2008 sale of mobile-phone airwaves and the hosting last year of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Protests over corruption on the streets and in parliament derailed Singh’s policy agenda just as India’s $1.7 trillion economy has slowed.
Political parties will scrutinize the bill proposals until Dec. 29 and are seeking changes that will strengthen the proposed corruption ombudsman’s control of the nation’s leading criminal investigation agency and tighten oversight of the junior bureaucrats Indians blame for everyday acts of bribery that blight business and local governance.
Setting the tone, Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in parliament’s lower chamber, said the government must accept amendments sought by her Bharatiya Janata Party or withdraw the legislation. “This bill has lots of flaws and inconsistencies, it violates the constitution,” Swaraj told a noisy house. “First make up your mind and then bring the bill.”
Singh later defended his government’s draft as part of legislative legacy that he said had sought to build transparent governance for the common man, while adding that he wanted the bill to reflect the will of the house.
While it has been charges of ministerial wrongdoing that have fueled protests, Singh said that the real problem lies at the state level where ordinary people “feel the pinch of petty corruption on a daily basis.”
Hazare, 73, who has become a household name in India with his fasts styled on protests held by independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, kicked of his latest protest at 11 a.m. in the financial center. Leading supporters Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi were at Hazare’s side in Mumbai, while other followers began a similar demonstration in New Delhi.
The protest venue at Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex is near the Indian headquarters of Citigroup Inc. and UBS AG as well as the National Stock Exchange, the nation’s largest bourse.
Hazare has been unwell, Manish Sisodia, a close aide of the social activist, told reporters in Mumbai. “But he has told us that he is committed and he will fast for the people of the country.” Hazare’s convoy moved through crowds of flag-waving supporters on the way to the venue in Mumbai.
Leading politicians from across the political spectrum have criticized Hazare for using undemocratic means to pursue his agenda and challenging the supremacy of parliament.
While the BJP says the draft law currently lacks the powers to investigate government officials accused of graft, smaller regional parties argue the bill is too oppressive and infringes on the constitutional rights of states.
India has failed on 10 previous occasions over four decades to pass laws to counter corruption and it is not clear when lawmakers will get to vote on the current set of proposals. Singh’s Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance has 268 seats in the lower house of parliament, four short of a majority. It is in a minority in the upper house.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi said Dec. 21 she “will fight for the Lokpal” bill proposed by the government and told her party’s lawmakers that “deliberate and malicious misinformation” was being spread that the government was failing to tackle corruption.
Hazare has also urged his supporters to seek arrest from Dec. 30 to Jan. 1, echoing a tactic used to confront British colonial rule, and picket the homes of prominent politicians, including Sonia Gandhi. If parliament fails to pass tough laws to counter graft, Hazare says he will campaign against Congress in the run-up to elections in five states early next year.
The bill agreed by cabinet ministers Dec. 20 excludes direct control of the Central Bureau of Investigation, leading to accusations the proposed graft-fighting agency will lack the powers to probe and punish the corrupt.
The legislation does grant the Lokpal the right to probe a serving prime minister apart from when issues of national security are involved. The BJP has opposed recommendations for job quotas on the Lokpal bodies for members of India’s lower castes and minority religions, saying they are unconstitutional.
India fell four places in this year’s annual ranking of corruption to a position below Liberia and Colombia. The world’s second-most populous nation came 95th out of 183 countries in the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Berlin-based Transparency International.
“This is the final and decisive battle,” said Nivrutti Satam, 58, a Hazare supporter at the protest venue in Mumbai. “This is the only chance we Indians have had since independence to get rid of corruption.”
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