By Pratap Chakravarty (AFP) – Dec 29, 2011
NEW DELHI — India's government and ruling Congress party failed to pass its proposed flagship anti-corruption law on Thursday as the legislation stalled in the upper house of parliament amid fierce opposition.
The draft law to create a new ombudsman tasked with investigating public officials was approved by the lower house of parliament on Tuesday, but faced an uphill task to clear the upper chamber.
Congress, which does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, lobbied furiously behind the scenes, but was ultimately unable to unite its coalition partners, particularly its unreliable regional ally the Trinamool Congress.
The 243-member upper house adjourned at midnight amid scenes of shouting and disorder after 14 hours of debate -- an ignominious end to an extended session of parliament called especially to pass the legislation.
The future of the bill is now uncertain, but will most likely have to be revised and again presented to lawmakers.
But Thursday's failure to pass it deals a bitter blow to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's administration, which had to withdraw another major reform earlier this month allowing foreign supermarkets to operate in India.
"We are trying to our best to get the bill passed," claimed Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal in the final minutes of the debate, shortly before the speaker called an end to proceedings.
Opposition members in the upper chamber filed 187 proposed amendments to the law, Bansal told lawmakers.
Singh's government had invested large political capital in passing the so-called Lokpal Bill before the end of the year, insisting they would would press ahead with a vote in the upper chamber despite their shaky position.
"You must support this bill for the sake of the nation," Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi told opponents in parliament.
"You want to pretend that you want to have a strong Lokpal bill (but) you are not doing any constructive debate," he added. "You are opposing for the sake of opposing."
Arun Jaitley, leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led attacks on the government throughout the day and accused it of being scared and deliberately preventing a vote on the bill because it faced defeat.
"The government of today is running away from this house because it is in a hopeless minority," he told lawmakers to cheers from his own benches.
The anti-corruption law has been one of the biggest political issues in India for months, the subject of an angry wrangle between the government, the opposition and civil society activists.
Anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare captured the public's imagination in August when he staged a 12-day hunger strike to demand a strong law to stamp out endemic corruption in Indian public life.
The independent ombudsman will have powers to investigate and prosecute public officials, but the debate has been over which state officials will come under his remit and his autonomy to pursue them.
Hazare tapped into widespread anger over an Indian graft culture fed by a series of high-profile scandals involving ministers in Singh's cabinet and senior figures in the Congress party.
His latest campaign demanding that the draft law be toughened further was called to a halt on Wednesday with the frail 74-year-old drawing small crowds in Mumbai amid concerns about his health.
Asked if the law would be taken up in the next session of parliament in 2012, Law Minister Salman Khurshid told NDTV television: "I hope that it will. I expect that it will."
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