India lower house passes disputed graft bill

Upper house will now decide on measure that sparked rowdy debate and hunger strike from leading activist.

India supporter of Anna Hazare

The Lok Sabha, or lower house, of India’s parliament has passed a bill to create an anti-corruption ombudsman, in a move the government hopes will deflate a protest movement whose leader has tapped into widespread anger at corrupt public officials.

The bill was passed after a rowdy debate, with the main opposition party voting against it and several others walking
out. It may now be held up in the upper house, where the government coalition does not have a majority.

In a sign of the rough ride the legislation will likely get in the upper house, the government failed to get the two-thirds
majority it needed to make the bill a constitutional amendment.

The bill, which would create an independent Lokpal, or ombudsman, to investigate corruption among senior politicians and civil servants, had been condemned as weak and ineffectual by critics, including veteran activist Anna Hazare.

Hazare, 74, began a three-day public fast in the city of Mumbai on Tuesday to press demands that the law be redrafted. There was no immediate reaction from him regarding the bill.

Hazare wants the ombudsman to have greater powers to investigate high-ranking officials. He says the protests will continue unless his demands are met.

“The government has become blind and that is why we have to repeatedly fast,” Hazare said on Monday. “This government is only after money and power.”

‘Tough action’

Al Jazeera’s Prena Suri, reporting from Mumbai, said: “While a lot of Indians still support Hazare’s movement, there’s been a shift in debate. Many more are questioning his method and they say parliament should be allowed to debate and make laws.”

 Prerna Suri reports from Mumbai

Suri continued: “Instead, Hazare’s constant threats are pushing the government in passing an important piece of legislation without a proper debate. The perception is that he wants his version of an anti-corruption bill to be passed, rather than a strong and sane one.”

A similar protest by Hazare in August had galvanised millions of people who took to the streets of cities across the country in a spontaneous outpouring of anger and frustration with the widespread corruption that blights their daily lives.

The main points of contention focus on the ambit of the ombudsman’s office and its powers of investigation which Hazare says are “an attempt to fool the country without actually taking tough action”.

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 federal investigative agency, the Criminal Bureau of Investigation.

Activists want the ombudsman’s office to have its own, independent investigative team.

With key state elections looming, Hazare has threatened to take his protest to those regions going to the polls, and tens of thousands of his supporters have vowed a campaign of civil disobedience if the bill is passed in its present form.

Many see a new national hero in Hazare, who models himself on India’s independence icon Mahatma Gandhi, but critics see an autocrat who uses undemocratic methods to force his views on parliament and offers false hopes that a single law can end corruption in Asia’s third-largest economy.

Political blackmail

Our correspondent says Hazare’s action could be perceived as political blackmail, but his supporters say that without this pressure, the government would have never pushed for a debate in the parliament.

“Remember, the Lokpal Bill was first introduced in 1968 and since then successive governments haven’t shown the political will to pass it,” she said.

“The government is also very nervous about the impact these protests will have on the forthcoming state elections next year as Hazare has threatened to campaign against the ruling Congress party. So, in that sense, there is some duress which the government is under.”

Hundreds of people gathered in advance of Hazare’s public fast at an open recreation ground in Mumbai, where security was tight with several thousand police deployed.

Shobha Keeny, a Hazare supporter, told Al Jazeera: “Right from getting a ration card to getting a passport to even getting your basic rights, you have to pay a bribe in this country. That’s why we need this law.”

Phoolsingh Maurya, a 70-year-old former head teacher, said public frustration with the government and official corruption had reached breaking point.

“We have come to the stage where this government has to go. We cannot tolerate corruption for decades,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies