New Delhi: As an ambulance waited to take activist Anna Hazare to hospital in Mumbai, the Lok Sabha in Delhi passed the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill, which delivers a new national ombudsman with nine members to investigate charges of corruption among government servants.
However, the Lokpal will not be a constitutional body, as the government wanted - it did not manage a two-thirds majority of MPs present and voting on two of the three clauses of the Constitutional Amendment Bill. And its numbers did not cross 273 which is just past the half-way mark of the total number of seats in the Lok Sabha. Both conditions need to be satisfied to amend the Constitution. (Read) The Prime Minister described this as "a bit of disappointment" and added, "We have, however, fulfilled our objective of bringing these bills to Parliament as we had promised."
There is though no getting around the fact that the failure is a crippling embarrassment for the Congress, not just because the defeat exposes its numerical weakness but also because the constitutional status had been proposed by Rahul Gandhi. Reports say that the Congress will issue showcause notices to 12 of its MPs who were not present in the Lok Sabha for the crucial vote despite the party's three-line whip.
After the Constitutional Amendment Bill was defeated, an angry Pranab Mukherjee said in Parliament that the defeat was "a sad day for democracy", and blamed the BJP, warning, "The people will teach you a lesson." The BJP was quick to return fire. "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has no moral right to continue in office, the government should resign on moral grounds," said the party's Yashwant Sinha.
The criticism of the Lokpal Bill ricocheted through the day between Parliament and at Anna's camp in MMRDA Grounds in Mumbai, with politicians across parties and activists dismissing it as ineffective. Seventy-four-year-old Anna, who has spent the year fighting for a tough law against corruption, refused to end his fast undertaken to register his protest against the government's bill. In Delhi, parties ranging from Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party to the Left walked out of the Lok Sabha before the bill was put to vote. (Read: Mayawati and Mulayam's parties walk out)
The lengthy debate saw fiery exchanges between the BJP and the government, and a rare intervention by the Prime Minister, who defended the lokpal Bill. Referring to Anna and his team, Dr Manmohan Singh said "The task of legislation is very serious business and must eventually be performed by all of us who have been constitutionally assigned this duty. Others can persuade and have their voices heard. But the decision must rest with us." (Read Prime Minister's full speech)
Both Lalu Prasad Yadav and the BJP accused the PM of using the occasion to sell his government's achievements ahead of elections in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh. Yashwant Sinha of the BJP said the PM's speech rang like a farewell address. Later, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee offered a caustic comeback. "I am sorry I did not expect it from Mr Yashwant Sinha that he will say it is a farewell speech. Why are you in a hurry to come the Treasury Benches Mr Sinha? Why don't you wait for another two-and-a-half years more or two years and four months to occupy these (ruling) benches," the Finance Minister said.
Mr Mukherjee also proved he repeatedly earns the badge of trouble-shooter-in-chief for the Congress. In an expansive speech that concluded the debate, he said that accusations that the government has "acted in undue haste" in introducing the Lokpal Bill are unjustified. He referred to the lengthy negotiations the government has held with Anna's representatives, and said other parties had at different points been consulted on their opinions for different features of the Bill. Mr Mukherjee declared that as many as 10 amendments would be brought by the government for the bill, many of them provoked by what other parties had suggested. One of the most contentious features of the bill was that it enforced states to replicate the Lokpal Bill - a violation of federal principles according to the BJP, and Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and the DMK, both key partners in the government. (Read: Key allies differ with govt) The PM had defended this section of the Bill, stating, "The Central government is responsible for providing a limited number of public services directly to the citizen. The real problem lies in the domain of state governments where the aam aadmi feels the pinch of petty corruption on a daily basis." It is here that the bane of corruption needs to be combated. Unless Lokayuktas are put in place, the cancer of corruption will spread. Let us not delay the issue any further. Federalism cannot be an impediment in the war against corruption." But the rollback was cleared at a meeting of senior Congress leaders like Sonia Gandhi and ministers like Salman Khurshid at about 5 this evening. Other big amendments include reducing the number of votes needed to initiate an inquiry against the PM. The Bill asked for a three-fourth majority of the nine-member Lokpal; the requirement has now been made two-thirds. Parties like the BJP and the Left had accused the government of providing too many safeguards for the PM.
But the government made no compromise on its stand on the Central Bureau of Investigation or CBI. The BJP, Left, Mayawati's BSP and Mulayam all wanted the government to loosen its grip over the CBI by relinquishing administrative control of the CBI to the Lokpal. The rationale is that as long as the government decides the CBI's budget, and the postings and transfers of its officers, the agency is vulnerable to governmental influence. "We believe that the CBI should function without interference through any Government diktat. But no institution and no individual, howsoever high he may be, should be free from accountability," said the Prime Minister. Mr Mukherjee also said that the government has agreed that the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief justice of India will now be asked to select the chief of the CBI with the Prime Minister.
In Mumbai, with a smaller audience than expected, Anna declared war. He said his three-day fast will morph into a civil unrest movement; he invited the youth of the country to court arrest. He said he will then campaign against the Congress, first in the state elections early in 2012, and then in the national elections. "The public will teach the government a lesson," he said.