NEW DELHI — Hundreds of anti-corruption campaigners descended on New Delhi and several other Indian cities on Sunday for the third time this year to protest a new draft legislation that they say is powerless to fight corruption.
Anna Hazare, the veteran activist who held two public fasts earlier this year, began a symbolic one-day hunger strike early Sunday. He called the new proposal “a betrayal,” and said he would begin a bigger, marathon hunger strike on Dec. 27.
“The threat to our government’s treasury is not from thieves but from those meant to guard it,” said Hazare, 74. “No jail should be empty, that is the kind of revolution we will launch.”
The protesters have campaigned for a strong anti-corruption ombudsman bill since April through sit-ins, hunger strikes, text messages and posts on Facebook and Twitter to galvanize tens of thousands of Indians fed up with a recent rise in corruption scandals. In August, a Parliament panel was set up to consider the protesters’ demands in a reworked bill after lawmakers bowed to the pressure mounted by a 12-day fast by Hazare.
But, when the panel released a copy of its new 286-page proposal on Friday, Hazare and his supporters rejected it as toothless in fighting India’s endemic corruption. He said that the draft does not follow the spirit of the resolution passed by Parliament in August.
The panel, after three months of deliberations, proposed a nine-member national anti-corruption ombudsman that would include 275,000 senior and middle-level bureaucracy in its ambit but leave out the larger corpus of 5.7 million lower-level officers, many of whom indulge in daily, petty corruption. The panel recommended that the lower-level officers should be investigated at the state-level instead. The panel was, however, silent on whether the ombudsman should have the power to investigate the prime minister — a major demand of the protesters.
One banner at Sunday’s protest site, Jantar Mantar, said the government’s proposal is like “an empty tin box.”
Speaking to reporters, Arvind Kejriwal, a popular leader in Hazare’s team, noted that out of the 30 members of the Parliament panel only 12, including some accused of corruption themselves, supported the new proposal and 16 dissented. The panel does not need a majority vote.
Unlike the earlier fasts, Sunday’s protest welcomed politicians to participate and give speeches. But the ruling Congress party declined because it said that its members do not want to discuss the issue outside Parliament.
There was some disagreement, however, among activists and politicians at the protest site over the selection process for members of the ombudsman and over creating a system to address public grievances of government services. Also, while Hazare wanted the ombudsman to have the power to investigate the conduct of members of Parliament inside the chambers, some politicians disagreed.
On Friday, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal said the protesters should allow parliament to decide the issue. “It amuses and bemuses me that discussions will be held in Jantar Mantar,” he said. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for a meeting of all the political parties on Wednesday to build consensus before introducing the anti-graft bill on Dec. 19.
As the crowds of protesters gathered in New Delhi, a group sang “I am Anna, you are Anna, and the whole country is Anna,” reflecting the cult status Hazare acquired from his August fast. Since then, however, the core anti-corruption campaign team has lost some of its halo. Hazare has been criticized for his practice of beating up drunken men in his village in the past. One of his key aides, Kiran Bedi, has been accused of cheating on her travel expenses for the nonprofit group she runs. And Hazare was lampooned for taking a convenient vow of silence when his team members were accused of wrongdoing.
“Everybody who has paid or taken a bribe has sinned. All the people gathered here want to wash off their sins by fighting for a strong law,” Bedi told the crowd Sunday.