Advised by doctors, Anna Hazare cuts short his hunger strike
The upper house of parliament will take up the anti-graft bill Thursday
The bill is meant to create a citizen watchdog but critics call it weak
Many Indians are fed up with government corruption
Ailing crusader Anna Hazare called off his three-day hunger strike Wednesday but pledged a campaign against politicians who rejected his version of a landmark bill aimed at fighting endemic corruption.
Advised by doctors to end his fast, Hazare, 74, told his supporters at a Mumbai fairground that he was deeply disappointed with the version of the anti-graft legislation that was approved in the Lok Sabha or lower house of Parliament Tuesday and is now scheduled for a vote in the Rajya Sabha or upper house Thursday.
In order for the anti-corruption bill to become a law, it has to be approved by both chambers with a majority vote.
The legislation proposes a nine-member citizen ombudsman or Lokpal panel that would serve as a watchdog and have the power to prosecute politicians for corruption.
However, lawmakers defeated a key federal motion to accord constitutional powers to the new watchdog.
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.
Leaders of the ruling Congress party, which does not have a majority in the upper house, scurried to find backing for their bill. Junior parliamentary affairs minister Rajiv Shukla told CNN that talks were underway with various political parties to ensure passage.
“We will try our level best to get Lokpal passed,” he said.
Hazare told thinning crowds at his protest site in Mumbai that he would tour five states holding elections early next year to help defeat politicians who opposed his proposed anti-graft measures.
But he postponed a planned civil disobedience action at the homes of politicians.
Dr. Daulat Pote, who examined Hazare, said the activist’s blood pressure was up and he was running a fever. He was coughing on stage and appeared tired but remained determined in his cause.
“Our fight is for the common man,” said Hazare, who has fashioned his protest actions after Mahatma Gandhi. “We want justice for him.”
But Congress member of parliament Sashi Tharoor, a former United Nations under-secretary general, said Hazare’s criticism was misguided. He said Hazare’s version of the bill would have amounted to a watchdog with draconian powers that was accountable to none.
“Your voice has been heard, action has been taken, the law has been passed,” Tharoor said on CNN’s sister network CNN-IBN. “Now give the law a chance to work. Please don’t act against the government on the pure speculation that the law might not work as as well you want it to.”
A leading constitutional analyst feared that the legislation, even if it is passed into law, would become vulnerable to legal challenges for reserving slots for religious minorities in the proposed institution.
“The (Indian) constitution allows no religion-based quotas,” said the analyst, Subhash Kashyap. Slots in government establishments are only reserved for disadvantaged lower castes, he said.
“This bill is more political than a serious attempt to fight corruption,” he said.
Several political parties, including the Congress party, are trying to woo Muslim minority groups ahead of upcoming state elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh province, where the community forms a sizeable voting bloc, he explained.
Family scion Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi – the Italian-born head of the Congress party – had earlier this year suggested a constitutional designation for the Lokpal to protect it from being dismantled by ordinary laws in the future.
A stinging headline in the Pioneer newspaper Wednesday called it a “huge slap” in the government’s face, a reference to the failed attempt for constitutional status for the ombudsman.
“Lokpal bill passes, statute change fails,” said the Asian Age daily.
In his remarks Tuesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh staunchly defended his government’s bill.
“There are some very special moments in the life of a nation. This is one such moment,” Singh said during the Lok Sabha debate.
“Others can persuade and have their voices heard,” he said, alluding to Hazare. “But the decision must rest with us. … We have seen how public anger has manifested itself in the last one year. Let us, therefore, endorse this bill as proposed.”
But opposition leaders said Singh was leading a corrupt party – Congress’s reputation has been marred by scandals – that had put forth a weak anti-graft bill.
In a new Transparency International survey published last week, 64% of Indians said they had paid a bribe to police, the highest corruption rate of any institution. And less than a quarter of those surveyed thought their government’s efforts to fight corruption were effective.
One point of contention in the proposed legislation is that it excludes the Central Bureau of Investigation or federal police from the purview of the Lokpal.
“Without an investigative agency, what is the purpose of Lokpal?” Hazare said in a December 17 letter. “It’s better we don’t have such a Lokpal.”
Corruption has been a part of daily life in India for many years. But it was a series of high-profile scandals that rocked the current administration and investor confidence in Asia’s third-largest economy.
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.
Police have questioned several high-profile executives in connection with the suspected below-price sale of radiowaves or broadcast spectrum in 2008. Politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate officials linked to the probe have denied any wrongdoing.
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. Jethro Mullen contributed to this report.