New Delhi: The government blinked on Tuesday, and then blinked again, even as the health of fasting social activist Anna Hazare took a turn for the worse.
Law minister Salman Khursheed met two of Hazare’s associates, including one of the people running the anti-corruption campaign, activist Arvind Kejriwal. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee later met Kejriwal and another of the men behind the campaign, lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
After the meeting, Bhushan told reporters that “the law minister and the finance minister have said that they will discuss the issue with the Prime Minister and other members of the government”. He also added that there will be further discussions on the matter.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier in the evening wrote to Hazare, expressing concern over his health and offering to request the speaker of the Lok Sabha to refer the Jan Lokpal Bill (the activists’ version of the anti-corruption Bill) to the standing committee of Parliament, which is already considering the government’s version of the Bill.
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The activists weren’t mollified. Hazare, who has been fasting at Delhi’s Ramlila Ground in front of thousands of supporters, refused to be hospitalized or to give up his fast. He also refused intravenous transfusions and told his supporters to resist any attempt by the government at treating or force-feeding him.
Bhushan told television channel NDTV 24x7 that the Prime Minister’s response seemed to be a ploy to buy time and delay the process of passing the anti-corruption Bill. Hazare and his team members want their version of the Bill—different from the government’s version in that it covers the Prime Minister and the higher judiciary—passed by 30 August.
A rattled government, whose first reaction to Hazare’s fast (which started on 16 August) was to arrest him and send him to Tihar Jail where several of the accused in high-profile corruption cases are housed, has also called for a meeting of all political parties on Wednesday. The arrest amplified the protests, and provoked thousands of people from all walks of life to come out in support of Hazare.
In his letter to Hazare, Singh wrote: “Undoubtedly, they (standing committee members) would be entitled to consider, in detail and clause by clause, subject to their discretion, not only the Bill introduced by us, but the Jan Lokpal Bill and other versions like those prepared by Ms Aruna Roy (activist and National Advisory Council member). Equally, I do maintain that they are fully entitled to make any changes to the Bill introduced by the government and referred to them.”
Given the anxieties expressed by Hazare’s team over the delay in the process, Singh added that the government could formally request the standing committee to “try, subject to its discretion and the necessity to reflect deeply and spend adequate time on an important Bill, and fast-track their deliberations to the extent reasonably feasible”.
But the Prime Minister maintained that parliamentary supremacy and constitutional obligations should be kept in mind in matters of legislation. “As a government, we respect and are responsible to the will of the Indian people as represented by Parliament,” he said in the letter, which was released to the media on Tuesday evening.
Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug said the government is taking a “big gamble” and that the letter indicates that it is “taking the situation seriously”, and is trying to get the “Anna camp” to agree to a compromise.
On Tuesday, Hazare warned a “bigger agitation” would follow if the government did not agree to his demands. “After 30 August, instead of sitting here, we will go in thousands and sit in front of the MPs’ houses.”
Meanwhile, in Parliament, the opposition pushed the government to act.
Both Houses of Parliament witnessed pandemonium and repeated adjournments without any business being transacted.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has already termed the government’s version of the Bill “ineffective”, and on Tuesday its president Nitin Gadkari said the government had mishandled the entire issue.
However, the party’s deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha S.S. Ahluwalia said it would attend the meeting called by the Prime Minister and said he seemed to have “initiated a process” of arriving at a resolution.
Communist Party of India-Marxist general secretary Prakash Karat said in an article in the party mouthpiece People’s Democracy that the government would have to give in: “In such a situation, there is no other way for government but to bring a modified or fresh Bill, which can pave the way for an effective Lokpal... For this, there is no other way except for the Manmohan Singh government to bow down to public pressure.”
The success of Hazare and his associates into arm-twisting the government to at least consider their version of the Bill has encouraged others to do the same.
The All India Confederation of Scheduled Castes/Tribes Organizations is coming up with its own version of the Bill, called the Bahujan Lokpal Bill, and is likely to send it to the standing committee on law and justice along with a memorandum.