28 December 2011

Delhi to Mumbai: MPs Debate, Anna Protests Lokpal Bill

India's parliament began debating the contentious Lokpal bill as Anna Hazare began a three-day fast in Mumbai to demand a strong anti-corruption law while political parties were divided on the efficacy of the proposed all-powerful ombudsman.

Hazare and thousands of his supporters gathered at the MMRDA ground in Mumbai to stage a hunger strike to force the government to enact his version of the law that he says is key to set up a strong ombudsman and fight rampant graft in the country.

 For the 74-year-old activist it is his third fast since April. He was on Monday suffering from a viral infection.

Speaking to his supporters at the venue, Hazare said he was only working for the betterment of the country and was not afraid to die.

"I am not afraid to die. I have decided that whenever I die it will be for the country and till the time I live I will work for the betterment of this country," Hazare said.

Parliament is meeting Dec 27-29 in an extended session to debate the bill that was tabled last week.

As the Mumbai hunger strike began, the government also faced criticism in the Lok Sabha with Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj opening the debate on the bill.

Ahead of the debate, various opposition parties moved 56 amendments to the bill that has divided the nation.

The key amendments include giving the Lokpal an investigative wing, setting the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) free from the government's administrative and financial control and making it optional for states to set up Lokayuktas.

Swaraj punched holes in the government's Lokpal bill saying it was anything but a strong and effective law to deal with corruption in the country.

She opposed the reservation provisions according to which 50 percent of Lokpal members shall be from tribes, Dalits, Other Backward Classes (OBC), minorities and women. Her objections include forcing states to have similar anti-corruption bodies and selection process of the ombudsman.

"It is patently unconstitutional (bill)... deeply flawed and tampers with the basic structure of our constitution," Sushma Swaraj said.

Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal, who was in the joint drafting committee for the Lokpal bill, countered Sushma Swaraj's charges that the government was breaching on the federal structure.

He accused the BJP of indulging in grandstanding but not wanting the bill to be passed. "Their politics is not to allow Lokpal, but just to criticise the government. They have not given a single positive suggestion on it," he said.

"If the bill is passed, it will be written in golden letters. If it is defeated, the people will not forgive you," he warned the BJP.

As the debate progressed in parliament, in Mumbai, the crowds at the MMRDA ground swelled to hear Hazare and Team Anna members speak. Hazare was joined by his members Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi on stage.

As he arrived at the venue after leading a rally from Juhu beach, he was welcomed with loud applause and slogans of "Bharat Mata ki Jai", "Vande Mataram" and "Inqilab zindabad".

Earlier, Hazare and his supporters were greeted by a group of some two dozen men with black flags in Bandra east, near the guest house he stayed the night. The men also shouted slogans against him. They were whisked away by security personnel.

Hazare rocked the government with hunger strikes earlier in April and then in August for a strong and effective mechanism to deal with corruption. His rallies in Delhi attracted tens of thousands of his supporters and also galvanized millions around India to the cause of curbing graft in government and public sector offices.

He and his team members alleged that the government had "deceived the nation" by bringing in a "weak Lokpal bill" that was bound to fail in curbing corruption in India.

 Hazare has also called for a "jail bharo", or fill-the-jails protest, by his supporters if the government fails to pass a strong anti-corruption law. He has also threatened to hold a sit-in in front of the houses of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and her son and party leader Rahul Gandhi.