New Delhi: In two hundred cities across India on Tuesday, thousands of college students, young executives and housewives joined a campaign that asks the government to enact an important new law to fight corruption. (Watch: Huge crowds in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Hyderabad)
At the centre of the movement is respected social activist Anna Hazare who has begun a hunger strike that he says will not end till the government proves its commitment to the Jan Lokpal Bill (Citizen's Ombudsman Bill). What the government has proposed in its draft, he and other activists say on the website, indiaagainstcorrpution.org, is "complete eyewash". Rather than strengthen anti-corruption systems, it demolishes whatever exists in the name of anti-corruption systems today. It seeks to completely insulate politicians from any kind of action against them."
Unless civil society plays a role in drafting the law, Mr Hazare believes, it will change nothing.
Mr Hazare visited Mahatma Gandhi's memorial at Rajghat on Tuesday morning in Delhi. He then drove in an open jeep to India Gate, accompanied by hundreds of supporters. As he marched to Jantar Mantar, schoolchildren could be seen waving the national flag. Online, Mr Hazare has received the support of five lakh Indians. (See Pictures | Comment: What should India do to fight corruption?)
If Mr Hazare is commanding the attention of the average Indian, it is not just because of his considerable reputation as a crusader for basic rights for the aam admi or average Indian. Since autumn, the country has confronted an epidemic of corruption within the government. The Commonwealth Games, a massive telecom scandal, and the appropriation by politicians and bureaucrats of a high-rise in Mumbai meant to house war widows and veterans have provoked public outrage. The government has been tested in Parliament by a reinvigorated Opposition. It will now face the people's verdict -five key states including Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala vote this month.
Mr Hazare and activists who have joined forces with him hope that the Jan Lokpal Bill will serve as the antidote to systematic and governmental corruption. They have challenged the government over its version of the bill - which they say gives politicians over-riding powers to decide who should be investigated and by whom. Listing objections on indiaagainstocorrpution.org, the group says, "Lokpal has been proposed to be an advisory body. Lokpal, after enquiry in any case, will forward its report to the competent authority. The competent authority will have final powers to decide whether to take action on Lokpal's report or not. In the case of cabinet ministers, the competent authority is Prime Minister. In the case of PM and MPs the competent authority is Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha, as the case may be. In the coalition era when the government of the day depends upon the support of its political partners, it will be impossible for the PM to act against any of his cabinet ministers on the basis of Lokpal's report." The selection committee for the Lokpal will be made up largely of politicians - so there is a conflict of interest. (Read: Why Hazare, Others oppose Lokpal Bill 2010)
Instead, the Lokpal Bill - Mr Hazare and his supporters state - must grant "an institution called Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayukta in each state. Like the Supreme Court and Election Commission, they will be completely independent of the governments. No minister or bureaucrat will be able to influence their investigations. Its members will be selected by judges, citizens and constitutional authorities and not by politicians, through a completely transparent and participatory process." (Read: What is the Janlokpal Bill, why it's important)
Mr Hazare wants civil society representatives to be included in the committee that drafts the bill. The government says that while it is willing to incorporate suggestions, legislation is the business of Parliament alone. Mr Hazare disagrees. "I will observe fast-unto-death till the government agrees to form a joint committee comprising 50 per cent officials and the remaining citizens and intellectuals to draft the Jan Lokpal Bill," he has said.