Blame-game over India’s stalled anti-graft law

December 30, 2011 10:47 am


India's PM Manmohan Sighn/FILE
NEW DELHI, Dec 30 – India’s government faced fierce criticism in the media and from the opposition on Friday after it failed to push through its flagship anti-corruption law in the upper house of parliament.

The legislation cleared the lower house earlier in the week and the government had insisted it would put the draft law to a vote in the upper house on Thursday, the last day of an extended parliamentary session.

After more than 13 hours of debate, proceedings were finally adjourned shortly before 12:00 pm 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 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”.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) repeated its call for Singh to resign and urged the government to hold fresh elections — demands that were unlikely to be heeded.

Thursday’s failure is another blow to the increasingly vulnerable Singh, 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 be revised and again presented to lawmakers in the opening session of parliament in 2012 in late February.

There were more than 180 proposed amendments filed by the opposition during the debate on Thursday which the government has promised to examine.

“The bill is not in cold storage and will be taken up in the budget session,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal promised on Friday.

He accused the BJP, which has struggled to benefit from the government’s recent difficulties, of sabotaging the legislation by filing contradictory amendments designed to prevent the passage of the law.

“The opposition parties would rather see the nation fail than the government succeed,” he said.

Singh’s government had invested considerable 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’s 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 will 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.

V.G. Verghese, at the Centre for Policy Research think-tank, said the failure to pass the Lokpal Bill indicated the problems and divisions within the ruling coalition.

“It would be much better that instead of carrying on for the sake of carrying on, the government throws out it allies, hold fresh elections and reconstitute the parliament,” he told AFP.

“But no one wants fresh elections,” he added.


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