Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Indian Parliament Passed Anti-Graft Bill
India's government pushed a landmark anti-graft law through parliament Tuesday, setting up a possible confrontation with supporters of a hunger-striking activist opposed to the bill.
The law, creating a powerful ombudsman to probe corruption among senior politicians and civil servants, was passed by a voice vote after the government acceded to a number of amendments proposed by the main opposition party.
The vote was an important victory for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration after a series of legislative setbacks had seen it battling accusations of policy drift. But not everything went the government's way.
A bid to grant the new bill constitutional status was defeated in what Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee described as a "sad day for democracy."
There was no immediate reaction from veteran anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare who began a three-day public fast in Mumbai Tuesday morning to push his populist campaign's demands for the bill to be revised and strengthened.
Several thousand Hazare supporters had pledged to take part in a campaign of civil disobedience if the legislation was passed in its draft form.
The main points of contention had focused on the ambit of the ombudsman's office and its powers of investigation.
The government bill offers only limited jurisdiction over the prime minister and requires the ombudsman to put any criminal probes in the hands of the government-controlled Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Hazare and a number of opposition parties wanted the ombudsman's office to have its own, independent investigative team.
During a heated debate in parliament, Premier Singh had insisted that such a move would be tantamount to creating a separate, unelected executive that was unaccountable to parliament or the Indian people. "Let us not create something that will destroy all that we cherish, all in the name of combating corruption. Let us remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions," he said.
"In endangering democracy, we will only be unleashing the forces of chaos and anarchy where reason will give way to emotion," he added.
His remarks were in part aimed at the Hazare campaign which in August had brought millions onto city streets across India in a spontaneous outpouring of anger and frustration with the endemic graft blighting their daily lives.
While many see a new national hero in Hazare, his critics see an unelected autocrat who has sought to bend parliament to his will with a series of emotive hunger strikes.
The status of his latest protest was in some doubt Tuesday evening, after concerns over the 74-year-old's health led some senior aides to ask him to call off his fast.
Earlier in the day, around 10,000 flag-waving Hazare loyalists had cheered the activist as he arrived in a garlanded truck at the hunger strike venue an open recreation ground in Mumbai normally used for rock concerts. "The government is betraying us... the entire country," Hazare told the crowd. "We will not step back whatever the odds are, even if it means that we may have to go to jail," he added.
Singh's administration, which has been tainted by a series of high-profile corruption scandals, had a lot riding on the ombudsman bill.
The mass demonstrations triggered by Hazare's campaign earlier in the year had forced a review of the bill's initial draft and observers said another climb down on the government's part would have been very damaging politically.