New Delhi: India's Parliament began a contentious debate on Tuesday over a bill to create an independent anticorruption agency, while the activist Anna Hazare sought to rally public support for his own anticorruption demands by beginning a three-day hunger strike in Mumbai.
The issue of official corruption has dominated India's political year, making the fate of the proposed agency, known as the Lokpal, the year's capstone political fight. On Tuesday, India's all-news television channels carried continuous live footage on split screens, contrasting Mr Hazare's protest in Mumbai with the parliamentary arguments under way in New Delhi.
The Lokpal fight poses a critical challenge for the Indian National Congress party, which leads the national coalition government and has been sharply criticized for an ineffective response to corruption. For months, Mr Hazare and leaders of the political opposition have lacerated the Congress party over corruption scandals and are now attacking the government's Lokpal legislation as too weak.
But Congress party leaders appeared determined to use Tuesday's parliamentary debate to place the political onus on their opponents. Kapil Sibal, a powerful government minister, signaled a tougher tone by arguing that opposition leaders were deliberately trying to defeat the government's bill so that the political status quo would remain unchanged.
"The whole country wants Parliament to pass this law as quickly as possible," Mr Sibal argued.
The government extended the current session of Parliament through Thursday to provide time for lawmakers to debate and vote on the Lokpal bill. The Lok Sabha , or lower house, must first vote on the legislation before it can advance to the upper house, or Rajya Sabha. If approved, the Lokpal would be created as a nine-person board empowered to investigate corruption allegations against bureaucrats and elected officials, including the prime minister.
Meanwhile, Mr Hazare's renewed political agitation presents an unpredictable wildcard.
Last summer, Mr Hazare fasted for 12 days in New Delhi in a campaign that brought hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets and forced the Congress party to agree to certain demands about the shape of the Lokpal. Mr Hazare's movement tapped into widespread public anger over corruption and managed to awaken India's usually politically apathetic middle class.
On Tuesday, Mr Hazare's new hunger strike in Mumbai began with fairly modest crowds of several thousand people, while a handful of his top advisers held a simultaneous rally in New Delhi. Mr. Hazare has vowed to fast for three days in Mumbai before traveling to New Delhi, where he has promised to "court arrest" by protesting outside the home of Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party. Mr Hazare's aides say that more than 130,000 supporters have volunteered to participate in similar civil disobedience campaigns intended to force mass jailings.
"The government has betrayed the people," Mr Hazare told the crowd on Tuesday. "One day, the people will teach them a lesson." He also said he and his team would campaign against the parties that form the current government in elections that will start at the end of January and run into early March.
Mr Hazare has been weakened in recent days from a viral fever and one of his advisers, Kiran Bedi, a former top police official, told the crowd in Mumbai that he should at least eat some fruit so that he can recover from his illness. By midday Tuesday, the crowds in Mumbai were fairly modest. Mr Hazare's staff had divided seating arrangements by gender, separating men from women.
Amit Jani, 38, a doctor of homeopathy, said he was attending the rally because of the frustratingly slow pace of change in India. "Every election, at every rally, Sonia Gandhi speaks about corruption," Mr Jani said. "But nobody does anything about it."
Mr Hazare and his advisers have attacked the government's legislation on several points, while focusing much of their criticism over the Central Bureau of Investigation. Mr Hazare has argued that the CBI should be placed under the control of an independent Lokpal. Under the government's bill, the agency would remain under the government's control.
In Parliament on Tuesday, a leading opposition leader, Sushma Swaraj, said that the Lokpal, as drawn up by the government, would be unconstitutional. Under the government's bill, the Lokpal would be created through a constitutional amendment, as a constitutional body, rather than as part of the broader government bureaucracy. The bill also establishes quotas for minority groups on the Lokpal board. Ms Swaraj argued that such quotas exceed the mandate of India's Constitution, which has no such provisions for quotas in constitutional bodies.
But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, rising to speak late in the day, argued that the government's bill "lives up to the promise" made by lawmakers to the Indian people to pass a Lokpal bill. Mr. Singh noted that the government is also moving forward simultaneously on other anticorruption measures and called on Parliament to pass the Lokpal bill.
"I urge all my colleagues in Parliament to rise to the occasion and look beyond politics to pass this law," Mr Singh said.