India government sees deal to end anti-graft fast

Parliament agrees to discuss Hazare’s proposals for a new anti-graft law

The Indian government hoped on Friday for a breakthrough in its tense standoff with a fasting anti-corruption activist after parliament agreed to discuss his proposals for a new anti-graft law.

The decision to debate Anna Hazare's version of the "Lokpal" (Ombudsman) Bill is part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's bid to persuade the 74-year-old campaigner to end his fast, now entering its eleventh day.

Hazare's campaign has galvanised public opinion across the country, triggering mass rallies to protest against the culture of corruption that permeates every level of Indian society.

The groundswell of popular support caught Singh's graft-tainted government by surprise and it has struggled to find a way out of the crisis against a backdrop of mounting concerns over Hazare's health.

"We wanted to do something that would allow Anna Hazare to feel a sense of comfort so that he could finish with his fast," said Law Minister Salman Khurshid, who has led government negotiations with the Hazare campaign.

"And I hope -- we all hope -- that there are indications that this is possible," Khurshid told the NDTV news network late Thursday.

Hazare's main demand has been that the government-drafted Lokpal Bill currently before parliament be withdrawn and replaced by the more stringent version drafted by himself and other civil society leaders.

The government has argued that such a move would undermine parliament's supremacy in drafting and adopting legislation.

Despite Khurshid's optimism that a parliamentary debate would be enough to placate Hazare, the activists' close aides said they could give no guarantees that he would end his hunger strike.

Looking energetic and alert despite only drinking water since August 16, Hazare said Thursday he had lost around 6.5 kilos (14 pounds) but was still feeling well.

He has rejected advice from his doctors, who had said they were concerned over his blood pressure and weight loss, to go to hospital and begin taking intravenous fluids.

The veteran activist is staging his protest in a large open-air venue in Delhi where huge, flag-waving crowds have gathered each day to show their support.

At the beginning of his campaign, the government had taken a tough line, initially arresting Hazare and several thousand of his supporters in a move widely criticised as repressive and short-sighted.

In an address to parliament on Thursday, Singh employed a far more conciliatory tone, saluting Hazare's commitment and moral courage.

"He has become the embodiment of our people's disgust and concern about tackling corruption," Singh said.

"I respect his idealism. I respect him as an individual... I applaud him," he added.

The Lokpal Bill would create a powerful new national ombudsman tasked with monitoring the behaviour of senior politicians and bureaucrats.

Hazare insists the scope of the bill be widened to bring civil servants at all levels under the ombudsman's scrutiny. He also wants a Citizen Charter displayed in all government offices and a separate ombudman for every Indian state.

 

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