India's parliament passes tough anti-graft bill

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's upper house of parliament on Tuesday passed a long-delayed bill to combat graft, with both main parties prompted to back it after a stunning showing by a new anti-corruption party in recent polls.

The ruling Congress and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) voted in favour of the tough bill in the upper house, in a rare show of unity in the normally disruptive and chaotic parliament.

"Today is a historic day. I thank all the parties for ensuring the smooth passage of the bill," Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath told reporters outside the parliament in New Delhi.

The so-called Lokpal Bill will head to the lower house on Wednesday for a vote on amendments added to the legislation, before being sent to the president for approval.

The flagship bill passed the lower house back in 2011 after a mass movement against India's endemic corruption spurred the ruling Congress-led coalition government into action.

But the bill failed to clear the upper house amid political divisions, in a major blow to Congress, which itself is embroiled in a string of graft scandals and keen to signal its intentions to fight corruption.

Under the bill, an independent ombudsman would be created with powers to investigate and prosecute public officials including MPs, ministers, and in certain cases, the prime minister for graft.

"The bill will allow the prosecution of the prime minister, other ministers and members of parliament (for corruption)," Chakshu Roy from parliamentary think-tank PRS Legislative Research told AFP.

The bill was also backed by small, regional and left-wing parties, although MPs from the Samajwadi Party, a regional party and an ally of Congress, walked out of the parliament to signal their opposition.

Renewed support for the bill comes after civil servant-turned-corruption fighter Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party trounced Congress in state polls in Delhi this month in a key test ahead of general elections due by May.

Kejriwal pushed Congress into a distant third place, and even deprived the BJP of a majority in Delhi, underlining his potential to damage both of India's main parties when the country goes to the polls next year.

Kejriwal, who campaigned on a promise of cleaning up dirty politics, was a key member of the grass-roots movement that demanded the tough law back in 2011.

That campaign was spearheaded by activist Anna Hazare who led countrywide protests that tapped into a rich seam of public anger at India's corruption and caught Congress unawares.

Hazare was Tuesday into the eighth day of a hunger strike to push for the bill's passing, a successful move back in 2011 when his 12-day fast led to its introduction into parliament.

"I thank everyone for passing this bill. Parliamentarians have realised that the people of the country are fed up of corruption," he said in televised comments from the fast venue in western Maharashtra state.

Hazare added that he would break his fast only "once the lower house clears the bill." Both Hazare and Kejriwal, who have fallen out since the mass movement, highlighted a series of high-profile corruption cases involving the Congress-led government to push their cause.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's second term in office since winning elections in 2009 has been littered with scandals including allegations over the allocation of lucrative coal mining rights and controversies surrounding the chaotic 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

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