As Anna fasts, parliament divided over Lokpal

Anna Hazare Tuesday started a three-day fast for a strong Lokpal, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh defended the government's proposed ombudsman following an opposition onslaught.


As MPs furiously debated the pros and cons of the Lokpal bill in the Lok Sabha, Team Anna urged parliament to dump the proposed legislation, saying it was too weak to combat the cancer of corruption. Intervening, the prime minister insisted that the bill lives up to the promise MPs "collectively made to the people of the country" with a 'sense of house' resolution in August when Hazare fasted in Delhi.

With Hazare insisting that all government officials should be brought under the Lokpal, Manmohan Singh said it was wrong to dub all politicians and the entire bureaucracy as corrupt or dishonest. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), he said, should be independent but outside of the Lokpal's purview.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) voiced the most vocal criticism of the government's Lokpal bill, saying it would never succeed in curbing bribery and graft. "It is patently unconstitutional ... deeply flawed and tampers with the basics of our constitution," BJP leader Sushma Swaraj argued. "What we are doing today is not good for India."

CPI-M's Basudeb Acharia said there were "lots of deficiencies" in the government bill. "We demand a strong, effective and credible Lokpal... The bill we are discussing has a whole lot of loopholes." Others voiced varied opinions. 

Some allies supported the Lokpal bill but came out against placing the prime minister under its jurisdiction. Allies Trinamool Congress and DMK said the bill violated the powers of states. The debate saw some fiery moments, particularly when Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal tore into the BJP.

"Their politics is not to allow Lokpal. Say that the government is bringing a weak Lokpal and then go to the election-bound states. They have nothing to do with strong Lokpal. "If the bill is passed, it will be written in golden letters. If it is defeated, the people will not forgive you."

None of this had any effect on Team Anna's protest in Mumbai, where Hazare began his fourth fast of this year at the sprawling MMRDA ground in the Bandra-Kurla complex. An estimated 9,000 people thronged the crowd as Hazare lashed out at the government, calling it insincere.

"Government is betraying us. I will campaign in five states where elections will be held," he said, as the crowd waved national flags and raised slogans hailing him. His confidant Arvind Kejriwal dissected the government Lokpal bill, explaining that it would never succed in curbing mounting corruption. "It can only protect the corrupt.

"We are appealing to parliament with folded hands to dump this useless Lokpal and accept our Jan Lokpal bill," he added. Later in the day, the Congress core group met in Delhi in the wake of opposition demand for amendments to the Lokpal bill and the criticism from some of its own allies. 

The meeting was attended by Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Congress sources said the party had an "open mind" on the suggestions made by MPs. Parliament is meeting Dec 27-29 in an extended session to debate the bill tabled last week.

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