India’s government faced fierce criticism in the media and from the opposition yesterday after it failed to push through its flagship anti-corruption law in the upper house of the Indian parliament.
The legislation cleared the lower house earlier in the week and the government had said it would put the draft law to a vote in the upper house on Thursday, the last day of an extended parliamentary session.
However, after more than 13 hours of debate, proceedings were adjourned shortly before 12pm amid scenes of disorder and shouting from lawmakers described as a “midnight farce” by one newspaper.
The opposition and some news reports accused the government of orchestrating the disruption in a cynical ploy to have the house adjourned and avoid a vote it looked set to lose.
Minority parties in the ruling coalition — led by the Congress Party of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — had turned against the government and demanded amendments, meaning the law would have almost certainly failed to pass.
The Indian Express daily said the ruling coalition had “egg on its face,” while the Mail Today tabloid said the law was now “in cold storage.”
The Trinamool Congress, an increasingly unreliable member of the coalition which had demanded amendments to the law, called it a “shameful” day for democracy and a result of “orchestrated chaos.”
Arun Jaitley, leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which has consistently disrupted parliament over the last year, said the government was “running away” because it was “a hopeless minority.”
Thursday’s failure is another blow to the increasingly vulnerable prime minister, whose administration had to withdraw another major reform earlier this month allowing foreign supermarkets to operate in India.
The future of the bill is now uncertain, but it will most likely have to be revised and presented to lawmakers in the opening session of parliament next year.
The opposition filed more than 180 proposed amendments during the debate on Thursday which the government has promised to examine.
“We are trying our best to get the bill passed,” Indian Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal said in the final minutes of the debate on Thursday.
Singh’s government had invested a great deal of political capital in passing the so-called Lokpal Bill before the end of the year, seeing it as a vital signal that it was keen to fight the scourge of corruption in India.
The law has been one of the biggest political issues in India for months, the subject of an angry wrangle between the government, the opposition and civil society activists.
A mass movement demanding a tough new anti-corruption law was spearheaded by anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, who captured the public imagination in August when he staged a 12-day hunger strike against graft.
Under the Lokpal Bill, an independent ombudsman would be created with powers to investigate and prosecute public officials, but a debate has raged over which officials would come under his remit and his autonomy to pursue them.
Hazare tapped into widespread anger over an Indian graft culture fed by a series of high-profile scandals involving ministers in Singh’s Cabinet and senior figures in the Congress Party.
His latest campaign demanding that the draft law be toughened further was called to a halt on Wednesday with the frail 74-year-old drawing small crowds in Mumbai amid concerns about his health.