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Indian parliament debates demands by anti-graft activist

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
Activist Anna Hazare on the 12th day of his hunger strike in New Delhi on August 27, 2011.
Activist Anna Hazare on the 12th day of his hunger strike in New Delhi on August 27, 2011.
  • Lawmakers debate the demand on the 12th day of Anna Hazare's fast
  • Talks with the government hit a roadblock over three of his demands
  • Opposition leader says her group agrees with Hazare's outstanding demands
  • Hazare's hunger strike has also drawn criticism

New Delhi (CNN) -- India's parliament on Saturday debated demands by a 74-year-old anti-corruption activist in what an opposition leader called a "historic occasion" for lawmakers to come together in the fight against graft.

The discussion came on the 12th day of campaigner Anna Hazare's hunger strike calling for a powerful Lokpal, or citizen ombudsman, to deal with massive bribes and kickbacks.

Talks with the government hit a roadblock over three of his demands, which include bringing members of India's lower bureaucracy under the new watchdog.

The federal government put the case before parliament.

Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in the lower chamber of the national assembly, said her group agreed with the three points.

She called Saturday's sitting a "historic occasion," saying tens of thousands of Hazare supporters expect effective mechanisms to tackle corruption in their daily lives.

A similar debate was also under way in the upper chamber -- the house of elders -- in India's parliament.

It was, however, not immediately clear when legislation to establish a Lokpal would be passed.

Saturday's meeting of the Indian parliament aimed at eliciting opinion of the federal legislature, composed of ruling and opposition parties, over setting up a tough anti-corruption institution.

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee initiated the debate, describing it as an opportunity to show political will to handle corruption.

"I am sure that members of this house will seize this moment and demonstrate the commitment of the house in dealing with corruption which is gnawing at the vitals of our polity," Mukherjee told parliament.

Hazare's fast -- a tactic adopted by India's independence leader Mahatma Gandhi against the colonial rule -- has also drawn criticism.

On Friday, lawmaker Rahul Gandhi, whose mother heads the governing Congress party, warned parliament not to allow the nation's democracy to be undermined, in an apparent disapproval of the high-profile hunger strike.

"Individuals have brought our country great gains. They have galvanized people in the cause of freedom and development. However, we must not weaken the democratic process," Gandhi, who is tipped by Indian media as a future prime minister, said in a speech.

He thanked Hazare for articulating what he called larger public disillusionment with a system plagued by endemic corruption.

But in his address, the 40-year-old general secretary of the Congress party cautioned against pressuring elected bodies.

"This (democratic) process is often lengthy and lumbering. But it is so in order to be inclusive and fair. It provides a representative and transparent platform where ideas are translated into laws," Gandhi said.

"A process divorced from the machinery of an elected government, or this house, that seeks to undo the checks and balances created to protect the supremacy of parliament sets a dangerous precedent for a democracy," he told lawmakers.

Three of Gandhi's ancestors -- Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and his father, Rajiv Gandhi, -- have served as the country's prime minister in the past.

Echoing current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's views that any institution alone cannot eradicate corruption, Gandhi described the proposed Lokpal as just one tool in the fight.

"Witnessing the events of the last few days, it would appear that the enactment of a single bill will usher in a corruption-free society. I have serious doubts about this belief," Gandhi said.

"An effective Lokpal law is only one element in the legal framework to combat corruption. The Lokpal institution alone cannot be a substitute for a comprehensive anti-corruption code. A set of effective laws is required."