India’s Anti-Corruption Contest

NEW DELHI – India ended 2011 amid political chaos, as the much-awaited “Lokpal Bill,” aimed at creating a strong, independent anti-corruption agency, collapsed amid a welter of recrimination in the parliament’s upper house, after having passed the lower house two days earlier. The episode, which leaves the bill in suspended animation until its possible revival at the next session, raises fundamental issues for Indian politics which will need to be addressed in the New Year.

The need for the bill – Lokpal loosely translates as “ombudsman” – was first mooted in 1968, but eight subsequent attempts to create one had never reached a parliamentary vote. The credit for imparting urgency to an issue that had become a hardy perennial of Indian politics goes to the mass campaign that coalesced around a Gandhian leader, Anna Hazare, who insisted that a “Jan Lokpal Bill” (“People’s Ombudsman”) drafted by his followers had to be enacted in toto.

Two well-publicized fasts by Hazare, attended by hundreds of thousands and breathlessly covered by India’s news channels, pushed the government to expedite preparation and consideration of a bill. The draft differed in many respects from Hazare’s, but it retained what most people sought – an independent agency with its own investigative resources and prosecutorial powers.

After parliamentarians were summoned back to work after Christmas in an unprecedented extended winter session, the bill passed the Lok Sabha (the lower house), where the ruling coalition commands a narrow majority. But the government’s attempts to entrench the law in a constitutional amendment, thereby elevating the authority of the office, failed to command the necessary two-thirds support. Still, the bill’s passage after 43 years of stalemate was little short of historic.