Congress on Saturday said the Lokpal Bill was a “matter of national importance” on which other political parties should get together and ensure its passage in Parliament.
The bill, already passed by the Lok Sabha, was tabled in the Rajya Sabha on Friday, but it could not be debated because Congress ally Samajwadi Party’s members created a ruckus, forcing the chairman to adjourn the House till Monday.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi led the party’s aggressive push for the anti-graft legislation at a high-profile media briefing attended by finance minister P Chidambaram, law minister Kapil Sibal, minister of state for personnel V Narayanasamy and Congress spokesman Ajay Maken.
He termed the Lokpal Bill a “very, very powerful instrument” that will strengthen the country.
“We are 99% there, near the finish line. I am not saying Lokpal is a solution for all ills, but it is a big step,” the Congress vice-president said.
As the Congress vice-president sought to take the lead in the fight against corruption, leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley retorted, “The government seems to have changed its heart again on the Lokpal Bill.... It should have ideally been passed in Rajya Sabha yesterday. We reiterate our stand that it should be discussed and passed on Monday. If the Congress and its allies do not allow the House to function, then we are ready to pass it without a debate.”
Though he brushed aside suggestions that the Congress was rooting for the bill because of Aam Aadmi Party’s stunning electoral success in Delhi, many believe the party was trying to salvage some political space after humiliating defeats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi assembly polls.
Rahul’s campaigning in these states effectively proved a failure and media reports had suggested the scion of the longest ruling party lacked a coherent set of issues with which to take on the resurgent Narendra Modi, BJP’s chief campaigner and PM candidate.
It appeared the Congress was handing him one in the form of Lokpal Bill.
In its latest push for the bill, Congress risks annoying ally Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party, which warned the government against pushing the proposed anti-corruption law and even threatened to support a no-confidence vote against a weakened UPA.
READ: Anna satisfied with draft Lokpal Bill, to call off strike after RS passage
READ: BJP prepared to pass Lokpal bill without discussion, says Swaraj
Rahul’s appeal is also seen as an attempt by the Congress to shed its government of the tag of being indecisive and take a political edge over its rivals on the corruption issue with general elections a few months away now.
"We would like opposition and other parties to ensure the Bill is passed. This is a matter of national importance. We would like all parties to put aside their concerns and do this job," Rahul said.
Asked whether the party had been coaxed into taking this position by Aam Aadmi Party’s success and the strong anti-graft movement led by Anna Hazare, Rahul said, “It has nothing to with AAP’s success. Whoever wins or gets defeated is beside the point. What is important is that it will help the country.”
“This is a strong bill and it will completely transform the face of corruption. There is a broad consensus on the bill, it is similar to the Right to Information in terms of national importance,” Rahul said.
Crediting the UPA with taking more steps for curbing corruption than any other party, Rahul said the RTI was a bigger step towards fighting corruption and our “government has done that (passed RTI Act)”.
“Lokpal is an important addition to that,” he added.
READ: Cong blocking passage of Lokpal Bill, says BJP
When repeatedly asked whether the government was suddenly interested in the bill because of the drubbing in Delhi and Hazare's fast, Gandhi said, "It is not a question of victory or defeat. This bill will help India....This argument that we doing this as a result of elections is a bit unfair."
He insisted that the UPA government has been "struggling" to get the bill passed but could not do so as Parliament has been disrupted.
Asked whether Hazare would be convinced by the government efforts, he said, "Our intention was to bring an anti-corruption infrastructure. We will keep doing this...Hazare is on fast, that is his perspective."
Finance minister P Chidambaram, who doubles as Congress chief spokesman, said the government believed there was a broad consensus on the Bill and it should be passed.
“This bill reflects all that the nation has been debating and wants,” he said.
When asked about SP's opposition to the bill, Chidambaram said, "It is possible, one or two parties may have reservations on the bill. I don't think there is any party which says we shall not or should not have the Lokpal. No party has said so. They have reservations.”
“Our appeal to them is to keep these reservations aside. We want to cross the finish line and get it into a law. I think the country needs a Lokpal and we can have a Lokpal in this session if parties set aside their reservations,” he said.