In a move that has galvanised demands across the country for a focused fight against corruption, veteran Gandhian and anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare, 72, carried out his threat to go on a fast-unto-death till the government agrees to enact a law to set up a powerful lokpal (ombudsman). He began the fast in New Delhi on Tuesday.
Organisers of the campaign, India Against Corruption, said 150 more people and 400 more cities apart from Delhi have joined in.The UPA government had drawn up a draft bill and engaged civil rights activists in a dialogue. But activists have complained that the government’s version of the law — first promised four decades ago — is toothless.
“I will observe fast-unto-death till the government agrees to form a joint committee comprising 50% officials and the remaining citizens to draft the Jan Lokpal Bill,” Hazare said.
The activists want a re-drafted lokpal Bill and a commitment to deliver the law to them. The government was ready to negotiate on specific clauses but reluctant to have the prime minister guarantee that it will be carried through Parliament, official sources said. The government insisted that engaging outsiders in drafting any Bill “would amount to endangering Parliament’s sovereignty.”
The prime minister’s office had made a last minute effort to dissuade Hazare till late Monday. When it didn’t succeed, the PMO expressed “deep disappointment” with Hazare’s decision.
“The PM has enormous respect for Hazare and his mission,” the PMO had stated, staring at the beginning of direct confrontation with the activist, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1992.
For the government, it appeared to be a combination of bad timing and an unprecedented demand from the activists, which led to a virtual breakdown of talks forcing Hazare to go ahead with his plan.
Hazare had written to Sonia Gandhi on November 14 and to the PM on December 1 last year, asking them to accept the civil society version of the law.
Hazare then set an April 5 deadline to begin his fast. A meeting with the PM on March 7 did not help bridge the differences.
Another one, between Magsaysay awardees Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi on Anna Hazare’s behalf with defence minister AK Antony, too, ended in a deadlock.
The National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi stepped in at the last minute, agreeing with activists that the draft Bill required sweeping changes. But in the absence of any concrete proposal, which could be acceptable to both sides, Hazare has gone ahead with the fast.
Both sides had been engaged in hectic parleys for over a month to arrive at a consensus on India’s longest pending legislation.
Though Hazare did not give any impression of going soft on the draft Bill prepared by the government last October, he too held out hope till the last about effective intervention from the PM and Sonia.