The lower house of India’s parliament passed a bill on Tuesday to create an anti-corruption ombudsman, a move the government hopes will deflate a protest movement whose leader has tapped into widespread anger at corrupt public officials.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has been the target of middle-class frustration with everyday graft and multibillion-dollar scandals in Asia’s third-largest economy. Under duress, the government agreed to pass the anti-corruption bill before the end of the year.
“We have ... fulfilled our objective of bringing these bills to parliament as we had promised,” Singh told the NDTV network after a bill first proposed more than 40 years ago finally passed in a rowdy debate where several parties stormed out.
In a sign of the rough ride the legislation will likely get in the upper house, the government failed to get the two-thirds majority it needed to make the bill a constitutional amendment.
In the upper house, the ruling coalition is in a minority, which means the bill — known as the Lokpal bill in Sanskrit, meaning protector of the people — may not quickly pass into law.
“It is a bit of a disappointment that we could not get the constitutional amendment bill passed,” Singh said, as party colleagues blamed the opposition for the setback.
Protest leader Anna Hazare, 74, who began a three-day fast to coincide with the parliamentary debate, wants the ombudsman to have greater powers to investigate high-ranking scammers.
Hazare called off his hunger strike yesterday, a day before it was due to end, but threatened to begin a civil disobedience campaign that would fill the country’s jails.
“Today I will break the fast,” Hazare told supporters. “We will discuss the future strategy to launch our fight against corruption.”
Hazare set the political agenda this year and weakened Singh, who was seen as indecisive as the protests spread. The prime minister is keen to put the corruption debate to bed quickly and focus on a string of state elections and economic reform in the new year.
Seen as a hero by many, Hazare swept to national prominence this summer when tens of thousands of people came out in support of a two-week hunger strike after months of news about corruption scandals damaged India’s image as an emerging power.
Among the worst cases were a telecoms license scam that cost the treasury US$39 billion, according to one government probe, and rampant financial misdealings around the shambolic Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi last year.
Support for Hazare has flagged in recent weeks, with the government’s apparent willingness to bow to many of his demands taking the sting out of his arguments that nothing is being done. Accusations of financial misdeeds by his aides and infighting have also taken their toll.
Turnout was small for his protest on Tuesday compared with the crowds of tens of thousands that accompanied him in August. Hazare aide Vishwambhar Chaudhari admitted there was confusion over the purpose of the new hunger strike.