Indian anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare began a three-day fast in Mumbai today to press for tougher action against graft in the country's sprawling state bureaucracy. India's Parliament is currently debating an anti-corruption bill that would set up an ombudsman's office to investigate embezzling, influence peddling and other forms of official theft.
But Mr. Hazare considers the so-called Lokpal Bill “weak and useless” in its present form. After a tumultuous year, wracked by corruption scandals and slow economic growth, the Congress Party-led government recalled parliament for three days this week, hoping to pass the bill before election campaigning starts in some parts of India early next year.
However, the self-styled Gandhian activist, whose anticorruption campaign has rattled the government, is not likely to back down. “The government is betraying the country,” Hazare told thousands of supporters in Mumbai. “I will campaign against the government in all five poll-bound states. I’m not afraid of death. I will die for the cause of the nation."
The state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and a frequent indicator of who will run the national government at the next general election, is up for grabs early next year. But it is not just Hazare’s threat to campaign against them in the upcoming elections that has the government worried. Millions of people across the country say they are unhappy with how the nation is being run and do not trust their government to craft legislation that will address popular demands.
“Our government has gotten too big,” says Vikram Sharma, a real-estate broker in Delhi, expressing a sentiment shared by many of India’s middle class. “The government does not want Hazare’s bill to pass because it means money out of their pockets.”
While the crowd backing Hazare in Mumbai this time is considerably smaller then the tens of thousands who came out during his 12-day August fast, Shivendra Singh Chauhan, a volunteer for India Against Corruption, says it remains a major public concern.
“In just a few days over 120,000 people have signed up for voluntary imprisonment and to show their solidarity with the national campaign against corruption,” says Chauhan.
He says he’s expecting about half a million people to sign up by the end of the week. Hazare's main complaint about the government’s bill is that India’s top investigation agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), isn't included in the proposed ombudsman's office as an investigative wing, which in his view will leave the new agency a paper tiger.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the CBI would lose independence if it worked directly with the new corruption ombudsman. Mr. Singh, speaking at Parliament today, urged the opposition to rise above politics to pass the Lokpal Bill.
"All of the members of parliament must cooperate to bring about a strong bill,” he said. “We must act now to rebuild the trust that is essential for a strong vibrant India."
Hazare isn't the bill's only opponent. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and some other opposition parties, formally proposed some 50 amendments to the government’s version of the bill. In recent months, the BJP and other opposition groups have blocked several government reforms including their plan to allow more foreign competition in India’s retail industry.