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Singh’s Graft Bill Faces Final Hurdle as Hazare Ends Fast

India’s Lower House Approves Anti-Graft Bill Sought by Singh
Supporters of Indian social activist Anna Hazare gather on the first day of Hazare's three-day fast at the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) recreation ground in Mumbai. Photographer: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is one hurdle away from creating the anti-corruption agency that has been repeatedly rejected by Indian lawmakers over four decades as he bids to end a year of protests against graft.

The bill to set up the body is expected to be debated in parliament’s upper house tomorrow, where the government faces a tough fight with the ruling coalition 28 seats short of a majority and needing to win the support of independents and regional lawmakers. It passed in the lower house yesterday.

Amid concerns over his health and dwindling crowds, anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, 73, ended his public fast in Mumbai a day early. Hazare, who has dismissed the graft bill as too weak and whose 13-day hunger strike in August roiled the government, vowed his team would campaign against those who had “betrayed the nation” and target Singh’s Congress party ahead of elections in five states early next year.

“It looks like Hazare is losing support among the general population,” said Sudha Pai, a professor at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “They have lost a lot of credibility because of the way that they have behaved trying to hold parliament to ransom.”

The government is looking to pass the bill, known as the Lokpal, as it seeks to cap the damage done 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. It needs to end demonstrations on the streets and in parliament that have stalled policy making and focus on reviving India’s slowing $1.7 trillion economy.

Joint Session?

If the government is defeated in the upper house it will either have to shelve the legislation or call a rare joint session of parliament to forge a consensus. If the bill is passed with some changes, Singh will need to take it back to the lower house for approval. The specially extended session of parliament is due to end tomorrow.

“This is not a time for celebrations,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, a policy research group. “I expect the government to face problems trying to pass the law through the upper house, they don’t have the numbers and the allies are lukewarm.”

Indian governments have been introducing bills to set up an anti-corruption agency since 1968.

Gandhi Defeat

Singh’s administration will need a repeat of last night’s events when lawmakers of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal walked out of the chamber before voting began. The legislators left either after their amendments were rejected or to avoid backing ideological rivals.

In a blow to the government, it failed to secure the two-thirds of those present in the lower house yesterday that it needed to make the Lokpal a constitutional body, which would have given it greater autonomy.

The idea to give the agency the extra clout had been proposed by Rahul Gandhi, widely touted by political analysts to take over Congress next year and to be India’s next prime minister if the party wins national elections scheduled for 2014, during a speech in parliament.

Singh’s government defeated attempts by lawmakers from several parties to give the proposed anti-graft ombudsman overall control of the country’s main criminal investigation agency, a key demand of Hazare who argues it is the only way to ensure the new body has the powers to probe and punish those accused of corruption.

The anti-graft agency will be able to scrutinize the prime minister except over issues of national security. It won’t have direct oversight of the junior bureaucrats responsible for the everyday acts of petty corruption that hinder business and effective governance in India.

The bill passed by the lower house included changes that require the assent of state governments before a Lokpal agency can be set up at the provincial level.

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