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The Indian government and Gandhian activist Anna Hazare are set Tuesday to enter what may be the endgame in their monthslong battle to win the high moral ground on the issue of fighting corruption.
Parliament will meet for an extraordinary three-day session Tuesday to discuss the government's version of an anti-graft bill that sets up an ombudsman's office to investigate charges of corruption in the bureaucracy, including—with some conditions—the prime minister's office.
The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is seeking to recover from 12 months in which it has been battered by corruption allegations, slowing economic growth, high inflation, a lack of fresh policy initiatives and some embarrassing gaffes—including the prompt reversal of a decision to greatly expand the participation of foreign companies in India's retail industry.
Also starting Tuesday, the septuagenarian Mr. Hazare and his team have organized a three-day fast in Mumbai for the self-styled Gandhian to protest against what he considers weaknesses in the government's version of the bill. Mr. Hazare has been the government's chief antagonist since the spring, goading the administration to enact measures he considers key to establishing a strong anticorruption ombudsman, or Lokpal.
Mr. Hazare rocked the Congress Party-led government in August with a two-week fast to protest what he saw as Congress's weak record in combating malfeasance. It attracted tens of thousands of sympathizers to a public ground in New Delhi and galvanized countless others around the country to his cause.
A key question for Mr. Hazare will be whether, with Parliament set to debate the landmark bill, he can muster the same enthusiasm among his supporters, especially the middle class, that would pile new pressure on the government to make concessions on the differences that remain between them.
Among those is the government's proposal that the nation's key federal investigative body, the Central Bureau of Investigation, remain under the government's purview. Mr. Hazare is pressing for it to report to the ombudsman's office, arguing that if it is overseen by the government, it will be pliable to manipulation on corruption cases.
Mr. Hazare is expected to attract a large crowd in Mumbai, India's largest city and financial hub, where he has not fasted on the issue before. He also is calling for a Friday "Jail Bharo"—another Gandhian protest technique—to promote his cause with supporters volunteering to get themselves arrested and jailed.
Yet he will do so amid calls from some quarters that the Lokpal issue be settled.
"If Mr. Hazare's efforts have brought the Lokpal issue where it has now, it would be unfortunate if the same Mr. Hazare, out of some millennial spite that mistakes accommodation for weakness, sets off on a different agenda altogether," the Hindustan Times newspaper said in an editorial Friday.
For the government, the passage of the bill—with muted resistance from Mr. Hazare—would present a positive end to what has been a markedly dreadful year. And it would give the government some momentum as it heads into key elections in five states in January and February, with all results to be declared March 4.
The government has taken several steps, including recalling Parliament this week for the Lokpal debate, to try to ensure that it doesn't enter the election cycle tarnished as unwilling to pass an anticorruption law in the face of widespread corruption nation-wide. The biggest electoral prize at stake is the state of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and a frequent bellwether for who will run the national government at the next general election. A general election has to be held by 2014.
"The verdict in the state elections will certainly foretell political events and assess the Congress party's performance ahead of the national elections in 2014," said Chintamani Mahapatra, professor of political science at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Mr. Hazare has threatened to campaign against the ruling Congress party in the five states if his demands on the Lokpal are not met.