India’s parliament begins graft bill debate

Special session under way as activist presses ahead with hunger strike to ensure tougher bill on graft is passed.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians have rallied behind Anna Hazare in the face of widespread corruption [Al Jazeera]

India’s parliament has begun debate on an anti-corruption bill at the centre of a hunger strike by a  high-profile activist who is seeking tougher action on graft.

Saturday’s debate comes as the besieged government of Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, struggles to address the concerns of Anna Hazare whose strike – now in its 12th day – has seen tens of thousands of people joining him to express their solidarity.

Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, began the seven-hour debate on the four-decades old legislation. But a vote on a final bill, which Hazare has demanded to end his fast, looks unlikely as worries over his health grow.

Hazare, 74, has become increasingly frail, drinking only water to stay alive, as the months-long anti-graft movement he leads gains momentum.

Saturday’s special session of parliament was expected to extend late into the evening, with members of all political parties expected to speak.

“The largest functional democracy of the world is at a very crucial stage,” said Mukherjee in a cautious statement that fell short of fixing a time-frame to reach a resolution.

“[We must] try to find a solution within the constitutional framework without compromising the parliamentary supremacy in the matter of legislation, and at the same time to ensure that we can resolve this impasse.”

Chanting supporters

About 6,000 supporters chanted and waved Indian flags at the sprawling dirt field protest site Hazare has taken over in the capital, New Delhi.

Several scandals linked to the government, including a bribery scam involving the sale of telecom spectrum that may have cost the state up to $39bn in lost revenues, led to Hazare’s latest protest.

“It’s the twelfth day of my fast but I am all right since I’m getting energy from all of my supporters. I can fast for another three or four days, nothing will happen to me,” Hazare, visibly weak, told his supporters on Saturday morning.
“Until the Janlokpal bill gets passed I won’t die.”

A decision to hospitalise the activist, whose blood pressure has fallen and pulse rate has increased, would be taken this afternoon, his doctor told reporters on Saturday. Hazare has lost over 7kg (15.4 lbs).

Hazare has demanded that the bill includes bringing civil servants under the proposed agency’s authority, ensures similar agencies at a state level and creates a citizen’s charter.

The government has asked for a promise from Hazare that he will end his fast should they meet his demands.

Bellwether election

The Congress party, criticised for not doing enough to curb graft, faces a bellwether election this year in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s biggest, and is keen to get the issue off the headlines. A general election is to be held in 2014.

Singh – along with senior ministers taken by surprise by the scale of the public unrest – has abandoned a hardline approach to Hazare.

The initial poor handling of the issue has led Congress to turn to Rahul Gandhi, the youngest elected official in the Gandhi family political dynasty, to try and reach out to Hazare in a speech to parliament this week.

“We are all aware that corruption is pervasive. It operates at every level,” Gandhi told parliament on Friday.

“In the last few months, Anna has helped the people to articulate this same sentiment [against corruption]. I thank him for that.”

Critics say his bill could be unconstitutional, and have slammed Hazare’s approach as an attempt to short-circuit democratic debate.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies