Indian prime minister makes new anti-graft offer to protesters

August 25, 2011

Trying to break an impasse with anti-corruption activists, India’s prime minister made a fresh offer Thursday for Parliament to debate all the versions of watchdog legislation proposed to combat graft.

(Related: In India, protests spark debate on democracy)

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also appealed to anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, a 74-year-old disciple of Mohandas Gandhi, to end his fast. But activists said Hazare will conclude his strike only after lawmakers actually reach consensus on the issues he and the government disagree on.

 Singh said he respects Hazare, who is demanding that the government create a powerful ombudsman law to curb corruption. The activist has lost more than 14 pounds in the past 10 days.

 “He has made his point. It has been registered with us. I respect his idealism. He has become the embodiment of our people’s disgust and concern about tackling corruption. I applaud him, I salute him,” Singh said in Parliament.

 Hazare’s aides and thousands of protesters cheered at their first victory, but Kiran Bedi, a prominent activist, tweeted: “Anna as I heard will end his fast only if resolutions on three issues are passed by Parliament.”

The anti-graft campaign has snowballed into a massive movement following a string of big-ticket corruption scandals that have come to light since October. Several politicians and businessmen have been jailed in connection with the scandals.

 Singh’s government introduced an ombudsman bill in Parliament this month that would investigate charges of corruption. But Hazare called the legislation weak and set an Aug. 30 deadline to replace it with a new bill drafted by anti-graft activists. Many other activists across India have also given their suggestions to strengthen the proposed law.

“A thought comes to me that perhaps we could have a debate in this House on all the bills that are in the public domain and have a discussion on what are the weak points, what are the strong points of various bills,” Singh said.

He promised that the record of the debate be sent to a Parliament panel for examination. Such a move, he hoped, “will respect parliamentary supremacy” and meet Hazare’s demands.

 On Tuesday, the government had agreed to most of the activists’ demands, including bringing the prime minister’s office under the ombudsman’s ambit. But talks appeared to be stuck on proposals to make the large number of employees in the lower level of the government bureaucracy accountable, appoint anti-graft ombudsmen in every state, and set a guaranteed time-limit for public services to be delivered to citizens.

 “My eyes are on the poor people. All these three issues affect them deeply. They are unable to get any work done on time in the government offices without giving money,” said Hazare, adding that he does not trust the government.

 He added he might end his fast once the parliament debate begins but will not give up the protest until lawmakers agree to these three issues. An aide said that Hazare wants to monitor how Parliament debates the four versions on Friday.

A doctor said Thursday that Hazare’s health was stable but that he would be watched very closely all night.

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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