NEW DELHI — The powerful lower house of India's Parliament passed a contentious anti-corruption bill Tuesday after hours of fierce debate even as a protest leader began a three-day hunger strike demanding Parliament adopt his tougher proposals.
The "Lokpal" or watchdog bill was passed after several amendments suggested by opposition lawmakers. The bill now must be passed by the upper house and signed by the president before it comes into effect.
"Let us pass this bill because the people are waiting for us," Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said at the end of an impassioned speech.
The bill was passed by voice vote by a majority of the members present. The lawmakers, however, rejected a portion of the bill that aimed to amend the constitution and make the watchdog a constitutional body because the government wasn't able to garner the support of two-thirds of the members voting.
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 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.
The legislation covers senior politicians and officials. The prime minister's office is under its purview, but with restrictions. But it gives the ombudsman no powers to conduct independent investigations into complaints of graft.
Hazare has fasted three times already. He started with a five-day fast in April, after which the government invited members of his team to help draft the legislation.
In the end the bill that was passed by the lower house kept the CBI free from the control of the watchdog. The changes that the government accepted included Swaraj's demand that the provisions of the anti-corruption law not be binding on state governments, who should be free to enact their own anti-corruption legislation.
Eight hours were set aside for the debate in Parliament's lower house on Tuesday but the debate lasted close to 11 hours. The upper house is set to debate and likely pass the legislation on Wednesday.
At the Mumbai fairground where he is fasting, Hazare told supporters earlier in the day 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, gathered in support. 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.
Doctors were monitoring Hazare's health and said that he was running a fever and his blood pressure was high. News reports said that ambulances were waiting on standby near the fairground.
Arvind Kejriwal, a key Hazare aide, said that his supporters had been asking him to break his fast and take medication but until late Tuesday he had refused to do so.