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Lokpal bill passed amid Anna fast, but Congress stumped

The Lok Sabha Tuesday night finally approved a bill to create a Lokpal but a move to grant it constitutional status failed, leaving the government red-faced. In Mumbai, Anna Hazare refused to give up his three-day fast despite falling ill, but questions were raised about the future of his movement.


Pic/AFP

It was a bitter finale to a day-long animated debate on the Lokpal bill, with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's passionate speech towards the end drowning much of the criticism from opposition MPs. But within a short while, the tables were turned over the constitutional issue, and a fuming Mukherjee cried out that "it was a sad day for democracy".

The Lokpal bill -- which aims to fight corruption -- was passed by voice vote shortly after Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party MPs walked out, the former saying the proposed legislation was too weak. The Lok Sabha also adopted the whistleblowers protection bill.  But the celebration in the treasury benches was shortlived.

With 10-15 Congress MPs mysteriously disappearing from the house, the government failed to win requisite majority to give constitutional status to the Lokpal, an idea first mooted in August by Rahul Gandhi. A stunned Congress immediately cracked the whip, announcing it would serve "show cause" notices to its missing members.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sushma Swaraj was the first to point out that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) did not have the numbers to get the constitutional bill passed, clause by clause. The government required 50 percent strength of the Lok Sabha and two-thirds voting from the members present. The bill now travels to the Rajya Sabha, where the numbers are clearly stacked against the government.

At midnight Tuesday, the Congress was clearly upset. Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal vented his anger at the BJP, saying it had succeeded in preventing the creation of a strong Lokpal and state Lokayuktas with constitutional backing.

The BJP, however, said the Lok Sabha had preserved the federal structure of constitution by not accepting the bill to give constitutional status as the states should have the right to decide their Lokayukta laws. The Lokpal bill and the whistle blowers bill will now go to the Rajya Sabha where the government does not have a majority.

Parliament is meeting Dec 27-29 in an extended session to debate and pass the proposed laws, Even as the Lok Sabha furiously debated the Lokpal bill through the day, the 74-year-old Hazare's health suddenly worsened. But he refused to break his hunger strike, saying he was ready to die for the country.

Doctors attending on him said his blood pressure had shot up, his pulse rate was poor and he was running 102 degrees temperature. Confidant Arvind Kejriwal pleaded with Hazare to end his protest but in vain. Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan also telephoned Hazare and urged him to call off his fast in view of his health.

"I requested him to call off his fast," Chavan said. "I told him that after parliament's voting, he is free to continue his agitation. But he must take care of his health." Until the Congress slipped in the end, the hero of the day was Mukherjee, who tore into the opposition attack on the Lokpal, explaining in elaborate detail why the government wanted to enact the legislation.

Earlier, Mukherjee, in his reply to the debate, sought cross-party support and reminded members that the discussion had been taking place on the crucial legislation for over six months. "Let us pass this bill because people are waiting... We are determined to curb the menace of corruption. We shall convey this message by passing the bills unanimously," he said. 

He insisted that the government was not under any pressure from civil society and had ensured safeguards while bringing the prime minister under the Lokpal's ambit. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who for most of the day was a passive listener, earlier urged the MPs to rise above party politics and vote for the Lokpal bill.

He said the bill lived up to the promise MPs "collectively made to the people of the country" with a 'sense of house' resolution passed in August when Hazare fasted in Delhi. But unlike in August when tens of thousands packed the Ramlila ground to cheer Hazare, the mass response was poor Tuesday -- both in Mumbai and Delhi.

After Hazare began his fast at the sprawling MMRDA ground in Mumbai, the crowds peaked to about 9,000. But by evening, they had thinned. In Delhi's Ramlila ground, where Team Anna members Prashant Bhushan and Shanti Bhushan fasted during the day, there were not even 1,000 people at any point of time.

Team Anna activist Medha Patkar admitted the time had come to re-examine the entire movement, which exploded in April when Hazare's first five-day hunger strike in Delhi elicited nationwide solidarity.

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