Indian Parliament begins debate on anti-graft bill

By MUNEEZA NAQVI | August 27, 2011 | 4:10 AM EDT

NEW DELHI (AP) — A top ruling party politician warned lawmakers Saturday not to bypass India's constitution as they seek to resolve an impasse with a high-profile hunger striker who has demanded that they pass an anti-corruption bill.

Anna Hazare began fasting Aug. 16 to demand that Parliament swiftly pass his stringent version of a bill that would create a watchdog to oversee the prime minister, judiciary and burocracy.

His campaign has touched a nerve in India and drawn thousands of supporters to his rallies. But critics say his bill could be unconstitutional, and have slammed his approach as an attempt to short-circuit democratic debate.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee reminded lawmakers Saturday that they were bound by oath to act "within the constitutional framework, without violating supremacy of Parliament."

After Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered Thursday to have lawmakers debate several proposed drafts of the bill, including Hazare's, the activist has appeared to soften his stance. He said that if lawmakers passed a resolution backing some of his demands — pledging greater transparency and including low-level bureaucrats and state officials under the watchdog's oversight — then he would begin eating.

Saturday's special session of Parliament was expected to extend late into the evening, with members of all political parties expected to speak.

Hazare, who has lost more than 15.5 pounds (7 kilograms), appeared in front of thousands of cheering supporters and told them that despite his more than 11-day fast, he was feeling "energized" by their support.

Doctors said they were concerned about his health, but that they would monitor him every hour.

Hazare's hunger strike has brought into sharp focus the anger ordinary Indians feel about the corruption that touches every aspect of life and politics in this country of 1.2 billion.

The government has appeared to be flailing through most of the hunger strike as protest organizers used social media and India's breathless 24-hour news channels to spread their message.

On Friday the government pushed to regain control of the debate as Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the country most famous political family, praised Hazare's initiative in giving a voice to citizens angry with corruption. But he said that demanding legislation through a hunger strike "sets a dangerous precedent for a democracy."

Gandhi is the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Indian prime ministers and has been heralded as a possible future prime minister himself.