NEW DELHI — Indian lawmakers fiercely debated sweeping anti-corruption legislation Tuesday while a protest leader began a three-day hunger strike demanding Parliament adopt his tougher proposals.
The legislative showdown is the culmination of months of angry political debate and public protests that brought tens of thousands of middle-class Indians fed up with rampant corruption into the streets and put a government battered by scandals deeper on the defensive.
Hoping to defuse activist Anna Hazare's anti-corruption crusade, the government initiated debate Tuesday on a bill to create an anti-graft watchdog. But that failed to satisfy Hazare, who began his fast in India's business capital, Mumbai, demanding the proposed ombudsman be made more powerful.
After close to six hours of debate, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rose to defend the government's bill, saying that the powers of the proposed watchdog needed to have checks in place.
"Let us not create something that will destroy all that we cherish all in the name of combating corruption," he said.
"I urge all my colleagues in Parliament to rise to the occasion and look beyond politics to pass this law," Singh said.
Hazare has called the government's anti-graft legislation an attempt to fool the country.
Hazare's main complaint with the anti-graft bill now before Parliament is that the proposed corruption ombudsman would not have authority over the country's top investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation. He says the ombudsman position would be too weak without that authority.
In New Delhi, India's Parliament began its debate with the government saying that the legislation maintained the "fine balance" between the powers of the legislature, the judiciary and the executive branch.
Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the main opposition, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, however, said that as the country waited for a "strong and effective" anti-corruption watchdog, the government was offering a bill that was "so full of holes and flaws that it has disappointed all of us."
Swaraj's party has thrown its weight behind Hazare's protest.
At the Mumbai fairground where he is fasting, Hazare told supporters that the proposed bill was a "fraud perpetuated upon the people by the government" and that they would teach lawmakers a lesson.
He said his supporters would travel across the country to campaign against all those political parties who did not support his version of the bill.
He has also asked his supporters to court arrest after he ends his fast on Dec. 29.
Hazare, who claims inspiration from Mohandas K. Gandhi, has called his protest against corruption India's second freedom struggle and has fasted three times already to garner support for his demands.
Thousands of people, many waving Indian flags and wearing the trademark white cap made popular by first independence leader Gandhi and now Hazare. As of Tuesday afternoon, the crowd was thinner than the tens of thousands Hazare drew to an August protest in the Indian capital.
Hazare is not without critics who say his populist campaign attempts to vilify all politicians and hold elected officials hostage.
Dozens of those critics also came out on the streets Tuesday, waving black flags and shouting slogans as Hazare's motorcade passed through the city.
Eight hours were set aside for the debate in Parliament's lower house on Tuesday. The government has said it will try to pass the legislation by Thursday.