Jan Lokpal Bill row: Back to Square One, says grim Team Anna; incorrect, counters government

New Delhi: Anna Hazare, now on the tenth day of his hunger strike, asked the thousands gathered at his camp in Delhi last night to make a promise to him. "When they come to take me away," the 74-year-old said, "Don't try to stop them. You must remain calm, you must ills the non-violent movement we have begun together," he urged. "I am strong," he joked, "I can still run two kilometers without a problem if someone asks me to." His aides said they had heard that Anna would be airlifted on Wednesday night to a hospital. (Read: Who is Anna Hazare?)

His appeal came after the negotiations between the government and his team entered a danger zone on Wednesday night. "Back to Square One" was the grim conclusion offered by Anna's associates after they met with senior ministers Pranab Mukherjee and Salman Khurshid.

This was the third round of talks between the government and Kiran Bedi, Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal, all members of Anna's inner circle. "Till last night, they seemed willing to meet us halfway," said Mr Kejriwal. "Their tone was respectful, but tonight their true colours were revealed." "It seems like after the progress we made last night, we have to start from scratch," Mr Bhushan shared. Ms Bedi tweeted that the government also said how to persuade Anna to end his fast was upto his aides. It is still not clear if the talks scheduled for today will take place.

Mr Khurshid issued a clarification at midnight claiming that the activists were misrepresenting what had transpired at the talks, which he described as "civil and friendly." The minister said Anna's health "is of great concern to the government" and that the discussions will continue on Thursday. (Watch) "There is no question of back to Square One," added Mr Mukherjee. (Watch: Talks not back to Square One, says Pranab)

What has the government and Team Anna at war is a new legislation, the Lokpal Bill, and the fact that both sides have produced competing versions of it. The bill creates an independent agency to confront corruption among public servants. The government has introduced its version of the bill in Parliament. Team Anna believes that version is weak and wants the government to withdraw its bill, and instead submit the activists' Jan Lokpal Bill for a debate in Parliament. The government says that's not possible; in keeping with parliamentary procedures, Anna's bill has to first be reviewed by a Standing Committee that's studying the government's draft. 

"Don't get into the modalities of parliamentary procedure," is what Mr Khurshid said he had advised the activists. He added that the government cannot withdraw its bill but the content suggested by Team Anna is being weighed. Mr Mukherjee added that the standing committee handling the two versions of the Lokpal Bill will be asked to move expeditiously. 

In the hope of ending its political isolation over its egregious mishandling of Anna so far, the government met with the leaders of all major political parties on Wednesday evening. The response may have emboldened the government to take a more severe approach to Anna's demands. Parties agreed that while the activist's health is the over-riding concern, some of his requirements for his Jan Lokpal Bill impede upon parliamentary procedure and should therefore be ignored. 

Anna has said his bill must be introduced within four days and passed before monsoon session of Parliament ends on September 8. That deadline was rejected by virtually every party. "No bill can be passed in this session," said the Left's Sitaram Yechury. "Procedure should not be overruled. The procedure must be followed. It is serious for parliamentary democracy," he added. (Watch)Earlier in the day, the BJP's Arun Jaitley had said that it's not the timeline of the bill but its content that should be the priority for Parliament. PTI reported that the Prime Minister said of the schedule suggested by Team Anna, "It is their suggestion. It does not mean we accept everything." His comment was made to reporters at his Iftaar party.

Ten parties including the Left and the BJP asked the government to withdraw its version of the Lokpal Bill and introduce a new draft that incorporates features from Anna's bill, as well as suggestions from other activists like Aruna Roy. The government did not agree to this, said the BJP's Sushma Swaraj.

Sources say the government is preparing an emergency plan to move Anna to hospital; the doctors attending to the activist have been consulted, they will indicate if and when Anna should be air-lifted to hospital. For now, they've deemed that unnecessary. (Read: Government evaluates plans to move Anna to hospital)

"If they take me away or send me to jail, go and protest at the homes of MPs and ministers, or surround Parliament, and launch a 'jail bharo' agitation. But above all, do not indulge in any violence," Anna said. "The government may try to provoke you into reacting with force; for me, you must not do that. That is all I want from you."

Team Anna and the government devoted two rounds of talks on Tuesday night and early on Wednesday morning hammering out a compromise, point by point. Most differences were reported resolved till Wednesday evening. The government, for example, has accepted that corruption charges against the Prime Minister can be investigated while he or she is still in office.

Three sticking points prevent a truce. Anna believes that all bureaucrats must be covered by the Lokpal or ombudsman committee. The government says this is not possible, because it would bestow sweeping powers upon the Lokpal and would require 20,000 officers to work with the Lokpal to investigate junior bureaucrats. Team Anna also wants the Lokpal Act to apply not just at the Centre, but in states as well; but the government wants states to develop their own versions of the bill. Finally, the activists also want a citizen's charter to be adopted by every government department which would detail the duties of officials in that team and include penalties for under-performance. (Team Anna vs Govt: Areas of dispute, negotiation)
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