New Delhi: With the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government failing to muster support from political parties over the Lokpal Bill and the health of anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare a concern on the ninth day of his fast, the political crisis over the issue continued to escalate.
Both sides seemed to harden their positions amid criticism of the government from within its own ranks. Two separate meetings were held between the campaigners and the government—one with law minister Salman Khursheed and the other with both Khursheed and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee late on Wednesday. With no breakthrough emerging, Khursheed said discussions would continue on Thursday.
An all-party meeting convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier in the evening to evolve a consensus to end the public stand-off with Hazare and his campaign decided to give the Jan Lokpal Bill, proposed by the anti-graft campaigners, “due consideration so that the final draft of the (government’s) Lokpal Bill provides for a strong and effective Lokpal which is supported by a broad national consensus”. All parties unanimously requested Hazare to end his hunger strike.
However, the government did not accept opposition demands for withdrawal of the current Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha earlier this month. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said it was unhappy with the rejection of its demand.
“We regret there was no consensus. Opposition parties, including us, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Janata Dal (United) and the Left parties, wanted the government to withdraw the current Bill, but the ruling parties and some others were not in favour of it,” said Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha.
According to P.D.T. Achary, former Lok Sabha secretary general, the government can seek the withdrawal of the Bill. “The standing committee can have a meeting at short notice and take a decision, which can be conveyed to the House. The House can take a decision on the withdrawal,” he said.
Political parties agreed, however, that there could be no short-circuiting of procedures, including the proper examination of legislation by the standing committee.
A day after the Prime Minister wrote to Hazare urging him to break his fast at the Ramlila Ground, which has drawn widespread public support, the activist and his supporters demanded that the government withdraw the current Bill and introduce the Jan Lokpal Bill within four days and get it passed during the ongoing monsoon session.
“If a written commitment can be given with timelines, then the representatives said they can hopefully persuade Annaji to stop his fast,” the Prime Minister told the all-party meeting.
Senior government ministers met Hazare’s top aides, who said the Prime Minister’s proposals, while welcome, did not go far enough and would not convince the 74-year-old activist to break his fast.
In his opening remarks at the all-party meet held at his residence, Singh said: “We want a strong and effective Lokpal Bill. Accordingly, we would like the standing committee to consider all points of view to evolve a broad-based national consensus to create a strong institution of the Lokpal.”
However, the ruling coalition partners and some friendly parties were of the view that Parliament’s supremacy and Constitution should not be compromised. The Prime Minister, who hosted an iftaar in the evening, was quoted by NDTV 24x7 as saying that the government cannot accept the timeline given by Hazare.
Concerns over Hazare’s health mounted.
“We recommended last night that for safety reasons, he should be admitted to hospital..., but he refused to move,” the head of the medical team, Naresh Trehan, told reporters on Wednesday morning. Team Anna member Arvind Kejriwal said the government will be held responsible if anything happened to Hazare.
Government officials were in touch with the doctors examining Hazare, PTI said.
Singh’s government came under attack by the opposition in both Houses of Parliament during a debate on corruption. It said the government had lost the moral battle against Hazare.
Meanwhile, the handling of the issue has created divisions in both the ruling and opposition parties.
At least a dozen Congress lawmakers, including two cabinet ministers, said the Prime Minister’s “unilateral” decision to personally write to Hazare was another “self-goal” from the government’s side. Senior leaders, who did not want to be identified, said the party leadership had not been taken into confidence before Singh sent the letter assuring Hazare that the government would send the Jan Lokpal Bill to the standing committee and urge it to fast-track deliberations “to the extent reasonably feasible”.
Rahul Gandhi, who is jointly leading the Congress in the absence of party chief Sonia Gandhi, did not attend the all-party meeting, which was construed as an indication of his unhappiness with Singh’s handling of the issue. Sonia Gandhi is undergoing treatment in the US for an undisclosed ailment.
Some senior BJP leaders have criticized its leadership for not taking up the issue of corruption aggressively enough and failing to capitalize on the public mood against the UPA government. Senior party leader and former Union minister Yashwant Sinha offered to resign as member of Parliament (MP) on this ground.
“I don’t want to say anything else. I have said what I have to within the party forum,” Sinha said.
The party should be more pro-active on the issue because there is a lack of clarity among the people about where the party really stands, said MP Uday Singh. He, however, said there was “no great disagreement” over the party line.
The BJP’s inability to capitalize on the public mood has made the movement, which should have been anti-government, one directed against the entire political class, another leader said. A BJP protest against corruption launched on 16 August has been completely overshadowed by the Hazare campaign.
Anuja and Reuters contributed to this story