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Time runs out on India's anti-graft bill

By Harmeet Shah Singh and Moni Basu, CNN
updated 3:36 PM EST, Thu December 29, 2011
Anna Hazare broke his fast Wednesday but pledged a campaign against politicians who rejected his version of an anti-graft bill.
Anna Hazare broke his fast Wednesday but pledged a campaign against politicians who rejected his version of an anti-graft bill.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: At stroke of midnight, parliament is adjourned
  • NEW: Opposition leaders accuse government of creating chaos to dodge a vote
  • NEW: Congress did not have enough votes to pass the landmark bill
  • The bill would create a watchdog agency to tackle endemic corruption

New Delhi (CNN) -- India will have to wait some more for a corruption watchdog agency.

Lawmakers in the Rajya Sabha or upper house of parliament engaged in raucous debate and high drama well into Thursday night without making a decision on a landmark anti-corruption bill that would create a citizen ombudsman or Lokpal committee with powers to investigate politicians.

The discussion on the floor disintegrated into utter chaos with an opposition lawmaker ripping apart documents and tossing them on the floor.

Amid the pandemonium, time ran out.

At the stroke of midnight, the winter parliamentary session, extended for three days to deal with the proposed legislation, ended.

Some lawmakers had asked Hamid Ansari, the house chairman and vice president of India, to extend the session to allow for further discussion and a vote. But Ansari ordered the sine die.

Lokpal must now wait until parliament returns for a budgetary session planned for February.

Opposition leaders accused the ruling Congress party, which does not have a majority in the upper house, of purposely disrupting the session to avoid a vote it knew it would lose.

"It has conspired in a manner so as to avoid a vote, said Arun Jaitley, leader of the opposition Bharata Janata Party (BJP). "This government has lost its political authority. It has lost its moral authority."

The Lokpal bill passed the lower house or Lok Sabha on Tuesday but Congress knew it faced a tough challenge in the Rajya Sabha after the Congress legislation was rebuked by opposition leaders and activists as too weak.

BJP leaders called the bill ineffective because the Lokpal would not be truly independent.

"I regret to say this is a half-hearted legislation," said BJP leader Arun Jaitley, urging the Rajya Sabha to reject the bill.

India considers an anti-corruption bill

"You are creating an institution where you control the appointment mechanism, where you control the removal mechanism. We will support the appointment of the Lokpal procedures, but we cannot be disloyal to our commitment to create an integrity institution."

Congress lawmaker Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who headed the panel that had originally drafted the legislation, accused the opposition of misstatement.

"Don't hide in pretensions and excuses. Do not try to mislead the nation by trying to look always as if you are passing the bill," Singhvi said.

To become law, the Lokpal bill has to be approved by both chambers with a majority vote.

As debate continued for hours Thursday, it became apparent that the Congress party would not be able to push through the current bill.

Among its most critical foes was Mamata Bannerjee, head of the Trinamool Congress party and a key Congress ally in its parliamentary coalition.

Trinamool objected to a provision in the bill that would have set up state-level watchdogs to mirror the national Lokpal. Bannerjee argued that the bill infringed upon the rights of states to enact their own anti-corruption laws.

Trinamool spokesman Derek O'Brien told CNN's sister network CNN-IBN that his party would support the bill if that clause is dropped. He, too, accused the government of deliberately creating chaos to avoid a vote and said was unfortunate the Trinamool amendments were not be considered.

"Sad, sad, sad," he said.

Meanwhile, the man credited with bringing India's chronic corruption to center stage, activist Anna Hazare, was nowhere to be seen Thursday night.

He launched a hunger strike to coincide with the special three-day parliamentary session. But Hazare, 74, fell ill and on the advice of his doctors, he abandoned his fast Wednesday, expressing deep disappointment in the version of the bill that was passed.

Hazare and other critics of India's scandal-tainted government said the legislation was watered down to the point where it would not make much of a difference.

Hazare vowed he would tour five states holding elections early next year to help defeat politicians who opposed a stronger version of the anti-graft bill.

Leaders of the Congress party scurried all day Tuesday to gather support in the Rajya Sabha. They brushed off criticism of their bill by saying that the Lokpal cannot be an agency with draconian powers that is accountable to no one.

Corruption has been a part of daily life in India for many years. The first time a Lokpal bill was introduced in Parliament was over four decades ago.

But a series of high-profile scandals that rocked the current administration brought the issue to the fore.

In April, a former government minister was among a dozen defendants charged in a multibillion-dollar telecom scandal.

Andimuthu Raja, a former telecommunication minister, is accused of being involved in a scheme involving the underselling of cell phone licenses at the height of India's lucrative telecom boom.

Investigators also probed complaints of financial malfeasance in the Commonwealth Games that India hosted in October last year.

Several politicians, military officials, and bureaucrats have also been the subjects of a separate inquiry for allegedly taking apartments meant for war widows.

CNN's Harmeet Shah Singh reported from New Delhi and Moni Basu from Atlanta.

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