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India democracy 'at crossroads' as MPs debate graft

August 27, 2011

Supporters listen to anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare's speech on the 12th day of his hunger strike in New Delhi on August 27, 2011. India's government on August 27 declared the nation's democracy was at a "crossroads" as lawmakers debated anti-graft proposals in a bid to end a 74-year-old activist's fast against corruption. – AFP Photo

NEW DELHI: India's government said Saturday the nation's democracy was at a “crossroads” as lawmakers debated ways to end a high-stakes standoff with a hugely popular anti-graft hunger striker.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, a top trouble-shooter for the ruling Congress party, renewed an appeal to 74-year-old Anna Hazare to call off his fast as doctors said the activist was weakening after 12 days without food.

“I would like to request Anna Hazare to end his fast,” Mukherjee said.

But Mukherjee insisted that the constitution must be upheld in drafting anti-corruption legislation in the face of Hazare's demands that parliament pass a tougher version of an anti-graft bill.

“We are at the crossroads,” Mukherjee told a special session of parliament held in an attempt to find an exit from the crisis that has mobilised huge crowds of anti-graft protesters, including large numbers of the middle classes.

“The functionality of the world's largest democracy is at a crucial stage,” Mukherjee said. “This is one of the rare occasions when proceedings of this house is drawing the attention of entire nation.

“Try to find a solution within the constitutional framework and without compromising the parliamentary supremacy.” Critics fear Hazare's demand for a new anti-graft bill that would create the post of an overarching national watchdog to monitor politicians and bureaucrats could undermine parliamentary democracy and create a “police raj”.

But the giant groundswell of public support for Hazare has startled the government, which was already on the defensive over multi-billion-dollar scandals that have implicated top officials. It is also battling high inflation.

While all lawmakers stressed during the debate that strong action was needed to combat India's “cancer of corruption,” they said any law must be in conformity with the constitution.

“It must be in line with constitutional values. We should not compromise with any tenets of the Indian constitution,” said Arun Jaitley, upper house leader of the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Hazare's supporters voiced disappointment over the proceedings, saying they had been told by the government that lawmakers would not pass a formal resolution committing themselves to meeting the activist's demands.

“We have been told there will not be any resolution nor any voting. This is not going to be very meaningful or helpful,” Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer who has been helping to organize the protest movement, told reporters.

The parliamentary debate came as doctors voiced concern over Hazare's condition, saying the protester had lost over seven kilos (15 pounds).

“His weight has gone down further and there is considerable weakness,” said Dr Naresh Trehan, head of the medical team monitoring Hazare's health.

“We're worried,” Trehan said.

But in a speech to thousands of flag-waving supporters in a large open-air venue, Hazare insisted he was ready to continue the water-only fast he is staging in front of a huge photograph of the independence icon Mahatma Gandhi.

“I'm still healthy, I can continue fasting,” declared the former army truck driver turned anti-corruption crusader, adding he was “overwhelmed by the kind of support that my countrymen have shown” for his populist campaign.

The common man is the “master” of MPs, he added, and people need to keep a watch on their “servants, and if they do not perform, they should be thrown out.”