NEW DELHI — India’s government failed Thursday to meet a self-imposed deadline to pass a long-awaited anti-corruption law amid heated exchanges in Parliament, as activists accused lawmakers of lacking the will to fight graft.
After a two-day debate, the upper house of Parliament was expected to vote on the bill Thursday evening. But at midnight, India’s parliamentary affairs minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal, said the government needed more time to study 187 amendments suggested by lawmakers during the debate.
Lacking a majority in the upper house, the governing coalition apparently could not rally enough support to call a vote because its allies had turned against the bill. The measure, which the lower house passed Tuesday, will be put on hold until Parliament reconvenes in February.
“What this shows is a complete lack of political will to end corruption. The politicians have colluded and conspired to make a mockery of people’s demands,” said Manish Sisodia, an activist. “For months, the ministers in the government said that laws cannot be dictated by street protesters. We were told to respect and trust Parliament to bring a law. Is this what they have to offer?”
Opposition members called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to resign, saying the government lacked the moral authority to stay in power. Opposition leader Arun Jaitley said that the government has suffered a political and moral defeat, and that the events will only embolden the people’s movement against corruption.
The landmark law would create a separate body to hear complaints of corruption against politicians and bureaucrats. But some members of Parliament have deemed the bill weak, and smaller, regional parties say it undermines the states’ autonomy to write their own anti-corruption laws.
In India, corruption has long permeated every level of government, from traffic police to officials who award licenses to cellphone companies. But this year, a volatile combination of factors emerged: a rise in big-ticket corruption scandals that India’s television news networks covered relentlessly, an anti-corruption movement that includes an urban middle class impatient for change, and the mobilization of protesters using cellphones and the Internet.
Analysts say the newly minted form of civic mobilization in India may herald a new era of democratic engagement of citizens that goes beyond merely casting a vote in elections.
“Something fundamental has changed in India. There is now a realization among Indians that our political system cannot change its ways from within, it needs a catalyzing force from outside,” said Santosh Desai, a political commentator and columnist.“The seeds of anger and resentment have been sown and will not go away, irrespective of the fate of the anti-corruption law.”
Since April, activists led by the 74-year-old Anna Hazare have mounted pressure on the government to bring a strong ombudsman law to curb corruption by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of supporters through street protests, hunger strikes and a viral campaign on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
The citizens’ campaign pushed the government to hold discussions with the activists and promise to enact the law this month.
The activists demanded sweeping powers for the ombudsman, though their critics said the creation of a behemoth institution with unchecked authority could turn India into a police state.
But after activists on Wednesday called off a protest action in Mumbai, many political parties openly opposed the law. One member tore up the bill and flung the pieces in the air, as others shouted slogans calling the bill “useless.”
“Once the public pressure on the street disappeared, it was easy for many politicians to oppose the bill in Parliament on some pretext or the other,” said Madhu Goud Yaskhi, a Congress party lawmaker. “There was no urgency to pass the law anymore.”
Activists said they will travel across the country ahead of elections in five key states next year and ask people to vote against politicians who opposed the bill. “Our next campaign will be to ask the people: “Is this the democracy you want, where you have no say?” said Sisodia, the activist.