* Rowdy parliament debate over anti-graft ombudsman
* Political parties look to state elections in New Year
(Adds detail on elections, background)
By Rajesh Kumar Singh and Frank Jack Daniel
NEW DELHI, Dec 27 The lower house of
India's parliament passed a bill on Tuesday to create an
anti-corruption ombudsman, in a move the government hopes will
deflate a protest movement whose leader has tapped into
widespread anger at corrupt public officials.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government has been the
target of middle-class frustration with everyday graft and
multi-billion dollar scandals in Asia's third largest economy.
Under duress, the government agreed to pass the anti-corruption
bill before the year end.
"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. He
says the protests will continue unless his demands are met.
Hazare set the political agenda in 2011 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
Seen as a hero by many, Hazare swept to national prominence
this summer when tens of thousands 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 licence scam that cost
the exchequer $39 billion, according to one government probe,
and rampant financial misdealings around the shambolic 2010
Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
Hazare's health was in question on Tuesday just hours after
he started his latest fast, with TV saying he may need to be
hospitalised for a high fever and blood pressure. Doctors
visited the protest site in India's financial capital Mumbai and
took blood samples for testing.
His support 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 to 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.
"There is neither an agenda nor a key objective for this
strike, hence it has failed to attract supporters," Chaudhari
said from the vast but mostly-empty palm tree-fringed protest
site in balmy Mumbai, adding he hoped numbers would pick up.
Hazare's team plans to picket Congress party leaders' homes
from Friday and over New Year's Eve.
The battle for an ombudsman is unlikely to be over yet, but
Singh's Congress party will be able to trumpet the passage of
the bill as it fights elections in five states in the next few
Key among the elections is the northern heartland Uttar
Pradesh, India's most populous state, where the campaign is
being fought by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a dynasty of leaders.
It was Gandhi who proposed to give the ombudsman
constitutional status, on a par with prestigious institutions
such as the election commission and the opposition was quick to
play up that setback.
"The responsibility of getting the constitutional amendment
bill passed rests with the government," said Yashwant Sinha of
the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. "The government miserably
failed to carry that constitutional amendment bill."
(Additional reporting by Annie Banerji in NEW DELHI; Writing by
Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Matthew Jones)