The Indian government yesterday geared up for a showdown with opposition parties and civil activists over a landmark anti-corruption bill to be presented in parliament.
The new legislation was the focus of mass protests in August, spearheaded by veteran activist Anna Hazare, that saw millions take to the streets of cities across India to denounce the corruption that permeates all levels of Indian society.
The proposed law would create a powerful new ombudsman, or lokpal, tasked with probing and prosecuting senior politicians and civil servants suspected of graft.
The Indian Cabinet approved a final version of the bill late on Tuesday and Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party, vowed to steer its passage through parliament over the objections of opposition lawmakers and the Hazare campaign.
“I will fight for the Lokpal Bill,” she told a meeting of Congress party members. “I cannot see any reason for us to be defeatist.”
Opposition parties have said they will insist on amendments to the bill, while Hazare has scheduled a repeat of his August hunger strike that galvanized public opinion behind his campaign.
The main points of contention focus on the ambit of the ombudsman’s office and its powers of investigation. The government bill offers only limited jurisdiction over the prime minister and requires the ombudsman to put any criminal probes in the hands of the government-controlled Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Hazare and a number of opposition parties want the ombudsman to control any CBI investigations.
“I reject the new version of the bill,” Hazare told reporters in his village in western India.
“If the CBI is outside [the ombudsman’s control], then how will the lokpal be strong? This system will save corrupt politicians,” he said, accusing the government of “cheating” the Indian people by proposing a weak bill.
Gandhi hit out at what she called the “obstructionist” tactics of the opposition and accused the Hazare team of “malicious” criticism.
The outpouring of public support for Hazare’s anti-graft fast in August had stunned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition government, which has been tainted by a series of high-profile corruption scandals.
Government sources said the bill would be formally submitted to parliament today — the final day of the current winter session.
In order to allow a proper debate, an agreement has been reached on an extension which will see the house reconvene for three days from Tuesday to next Thursday next week.