India democracy ‘at crossroads’ as MPs debate graft


India’s government said Saturday the nation’s democracy was at a “crossroads” as lawmakers debated ways to end a high-stakes standoff with a hugely popular anti-graft hunger striker.
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, a top trouble-shooter for the ruling Congress party, renewed an appeal to 74-year-old Anna Hazare to call off his fast as the activist was visibly weaker after 12 days without food.
“I would like to request Anna Hazare to end his fast,” Mukherjee said.
But he insisted that the constitution must be upheld in drafting anti-corruption legislation, despite Hazare’s demand that parliament consider his own, tough draft of an anti-corruption bill.
“We are at the crossroads,” Mukherjee told a marathon special session of parliament held in an attempt to find an exit from the impasse that has mobilised hundreds of thousands of anti-graft protesters.
“The functionality of the world’s largest democracy is at a crucial stage,” he said. “This is one of the rare occasions when proceedings of this house is drawing the attention of entire nation.
“Try to find a solution within the constitutional framework and without compromising the parliamentary supremacy.”
The giant groundswell of public support for Hazare has startled the government, which was already on the defensive over a series of multi-billion-dollar scandals that have implicated top officials.
Critics fear Hazare’s demand for a new anti-graft bill that would create the post of an overarching national watchdog to monitor politicians and bureaucrats could undermine parliamentary democracy and create a “police raj”.
While all lawmakers stressed that strong action was needed to combat India’s rampant corruption culture, they said any law must be in conformity with the constitution.
“It must be in line with consitutional values. We should not compromise with any tenets of the Indian constitution,” said Arun Jaitley, upper house leader of the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
But behind the scenes, the government and opposition were reported by Indian media to be ready to meet Hazare’s key conditions, which include a citizen’s charter and bringing all government employees under an ombudsman’s authority.
India’s NDTV said that Mukherjee was expected to move an all-party resolution in parliament later in the day that was expected to persuade Hazare to end his fast. There was no immediate government comment.
The parliamentary debate came as doctors voiced concern over Hazare’s condition, saying the self-styled Gandhian protester had lost over seven kilos (15 pounds).
“His weight has gone down further and there is considerable weakness,” said Dr Naresh Trehan, head of the medical team monitoring Hazare’s health.
“We’re worried,” Trehan said.
But in a speech to thousands of flag-waving supporters in a large open-air venue, Hazare insisted he was ready to continue the water-only fast he is staging in front of a huge photograph of the independence icon Mahatma Gandhi.
“I’m still healthy,” declared the former army truck driver turned anti-corruption crusader, adding he was “overwhelmed by the kind of support that my countrymen have shown” for his populist campaign.
“I can continue fasting,” he said.