NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s parliament edged closer to an agreement on Saturday on an anti-corruption bill that could end a 12-day hunger strike by a social activist that has lead to widespread anger against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s besieged government.
The campaign to get the legislation passed by 74-year-old Anna Hazare has struck a chord with millions of Indians tired of endemic corruption, sparking nationwide protests and exposing the ruling Congress party as out-of-touch with voters.
Lawmakers from the ruling Congress party and the main opposition agreed in principle to Hazare’s three key demands for the bill during a fractious special session of parliament, but cautioned that the legislation would take time to be resolved.
Hazare has demanded that the bill includes bringing civil servants under a proposed corruption agency’s authority, ensures similar agencies at a state level and creates a citizen’s charter. The government has asked for a promise from Hazare that he will end his fast should they meet his demands.
“On the three conditions that have been placed in parliament today, my party agrees to all three,” said Sushma Swaraj, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the lower house of parliament.
“We wish that the parliament will agree to all three conditions,” said Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit.
Political parties have pleaded with Hazare to stop fasting due to his deteriorating health, but the activist has vowed to continue until lawmakers table the bill, as thousands of supporters throng his protest site in India’s capital.
Both houses of parliament embarked on a seven-hour debate on the four-decades old legislation on Saturday, as the embattled Congress party frantically looked to broker a deal to end a crisis that has paralyzed parliamentary business.
“(We must) try to find a solution within the constitutional framework without compromising the parliamentary supremacy in the matter of legislation, and at the same time to ensure that we can resolve this impasse,” said Finance Minister and Congress troubleshooter Pranab Mukherjee in a cautious statement that fell short of fixing a time-frame to reach a resolution.
Around 6,000 supporters chanted and waved Indian flags at the sprawling dirt field protest site Hazare has taken over in New Delhi that has become the epicenter of a months-long anti-graft movement.
“The government and the entire political class will fall in line today. They have been dragging this on for too long,” said Akash Mishra, 24, who has been at the protest for a week.
“I hope nothing happens to Anna in the meanwhile. If something does happen to him, this movement may turn violent.”
Several scandals linked to the government, including a bribery scam involving the sale of telecom spectrum that may have cost the state up to $39 billion in lost revenues, led to Hazare’s latest protest.
“It’s the twelfth day of my fast but I am all right since I‘m getting energy from all of my supporters. I can fast for another three or four days, nothing will happen to me,” Hazare, visibly weak, told his supporters on Saturday morning.
“Until the Janlokpal bill gets passed I won’t die.”
A decision to hospitalize the activist, whose blood pressure has fallen and pulse rate has increased, would be taken later in the day, his doctor told reporters. Hazare has lost over 7 kg (15.4 lbs) and appears increasingly frail.
Hazare’s diminishing health could force authorities to force-feed him, a move that would make them appear even more disconnected from public opinion.
Congress, seen by many in an increasingly youthful India as an aged party either incapable of or indifferent to tackling graft, faces a bellwether election in India’s biggest state of Uttar Pradesh this year and a general election in 2014, and is keen to get the issue off the headlines.
Singh and other senior ministers, taken by surprise by the scale of the public unrest, have abandoned a hardline approach to Hazare.
The initial poor handling of the issue led the party to turn to Rahul Gandhi, the youngest elected official in the Gandhi family political dynasty, to try and reach out to Hazare in a speech to parliament this week.
“We are all aware that corruption is pervasive. It operates at every level,” Gandhi told parliament on Friday. “In the last few months, Anna has helped the people to articulate this same sentiment (against corruption). I thank him for that.”
But Hazare has come under growing criticism from some quarters that he is holding an elected parliament hostage.
“I have a fervent hope that he does (cease his fast today). We have scheduled discussions today as a special day,” parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Bansal told CNN-IBN.
“The concerns are being addressed ... (but) every law to be made has to be made in the parliament.”
Writing by Henry Foy; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Nick Macfie