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India Activists, Government Narrow Differences on Anti-Graft Law

Anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare gestures during a rally at Ram Lila grounds in New Delhi on August 23, 2011. Photographer: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare gestures during a rally at Ram Lila grounds in New Delhi on August 23, 2011. Photographer: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Aug. 24 (Bloomberg) -- India’s government and civil society activists narrowed differences over the powers of a proposed law to fight corruption, the clearest sign yet of concessions that may end a nine-day hunger strike and street protests.

The government now has “no objection” to including the prime minister in the scope of the so-called Lokpal Bill, said Prashant Bhushan, a key aide to Anna Hazare, 74, whose fast has tapped widespread anger over bribe-taking in public life. Oversight of the prime minister’s office was excluded from draft legislation approved by the cabinet and forwarded to a panel of lawmakers for scrutiny.

Offering their own compromise, Hazare’s advisers agreed to a government proposal that graft cases involving senior judges will be dealt with by a separate law, Arvind Kejriwal, one of the team, told supporters yesterday. Three “sticky issues” remain, Kejriwal said: whether to include the lower rungs of the bureaucracy in the bill, establishing anti-corruption ombudsmen in India’s states and preparing “citizens’ charters” to cover the working of ministries.

Hazare’s fast has sparked protests by supporters nationwide, with the biggest demonstrations in New Delhi at the weekend drawing up to 50,000 people. The rallies have added to pressure on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has seen his legislative agenda grind to a halt amid graft allegations that first surfaced in October, the biggest of which involves the 2008 sale of permits to run mobile-phone services that the country’s auditor says may have cost the exchequer $31 billion.

Olive Branch

Singh yesterday reached out to Hazare, appealing to him to call off his hunger strike and offering to refer to the parliamentary panel studying the issue the activist’s proposals for stronger laws. His olive branch helped initiate the first high-level talks between the two sides since the crisis began.

Many of Singh’s main rivals have rounded on the prime minister despite having their own reservations over the tactics being deployed by Hazare and the wisdom of creating a single all-powerful corruption fighting body that may grow to be unwieldy. Political leaders will hold a cross-party meeting today in an attempt to build a wider consensus.

Hazare and his supporters have not withdrawn a demand that their proposals for an agency with sweeping powers to investigate and prosecute corruption cases be approved by parliament by the end of August.

A leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Sushma Swaraj, has called the government’s version of the Lokpal legislation “ineffective.”

Danger to Democracy

The prime minister last week condemned Hazare’s mode of protest as “totally misconceived” and a danger to India’s parliamentary democracy. He should take his arguments to elected representatives not the street, Singh said.

“There is a lot of power in the non-violence movement and you should ensure its flames are not doused,” Hazare, who has fashioned his fast on those of his self-proclaimed inspiration, Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi, said yesterday.

An earlier hunger strike by Hazare in April first grabbed the attention of television channels that had exposed graft cases in the heart of government, including alleged irregularities in completing contracts for last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. The government invited social activists for talks on framing the Lokpal Bill. Hazare says their suggestions were ignored.

A former telecom minister, a federal lawmaker and businessmen have been jailed and are on trial in New Delhi over their role in the sale of mobile phone licenses.

“I am hopeful we will be able to work out a solution,” Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, said yesterday following his talks with aides of Hazare.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at bpradhan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hari Govind at hgovind@bloomberg.net

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