By Arup Roychoudhury and Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's parliament began a fractious debate on an anti-corruption bill on Saturday as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's besieged government struggles to appease a social activist who is increasingly frail nearly two weeks into a hunger strike.
The campaign to get the legislation passed by 74-year-old Anna Hazare has struck a chord with millions of Indians tired of endemic corruption, sparking nationwide protests and exposing the ruling Congress party as out-of-touch with voters.
Political parties have pleaded with Hazare to end his fast, but lawmakers have squabbled over the content of a bill that would create a umbrella agency to probe government corruption, as thousands of supporters gathered at Hazare's fairground protest site and across India's capital.
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee began a proposed seven-hour debate on the four-decades old legislation. But a vote on a final bill, which the activist has demanded to end his fast, looks unlikely as worries over his health grow.
"The largest functional democracy of the world is at a very crucial stage," said Mukherjee in a cautious statement that fell short of fixing a time-frame to reach a resolution.
"(We must) try to find a solution within the constitutional framework without compromising the parliamentary supremacy in the matter of legislation, and at the same time to ensure that we can resolve this impasse."
Around 6,000 supporters chanted and waved Indian flags at the sprawling dirt field protest site Hazare has taken over in New Delhi that has become the epicenter of a months-long anti-graft movement.
Several scandals linked to the government, including a bribery scam involving the sale of telecom spectrum that may have cost the state up to $39 billion in lost revenues, led to Hazare's latest protest.
"It's the twelfth day of my fast but I am alright since I'm getting energy from all of my supporters. I can fast for another three or four days, nothing will happen to me," Hazare, visibly weak, told his supporters on Saturday morning.
"Until the Janlokpal bill gets passed I won't die."
A decision to hospitalise the activist, whose blood pressure has fallen and pulse rate has increased, would be taken this afternoon, his doctor told reporters on Saturday. Hazare hospitalizehas lost over 7 kg (15.4 lbs) and appears increasingly frail.
Hazare's diminishing health could force authorities to force-feed him, a move that would make them appear even more disconnected from public opinion.
WOES FOR CONGRESS PARTY
Hazare has demanded that the bill includes bringing civil servants under the proposed agency's authority, ensures similar agencies at a state level and creates a citizen's charter. The government has asked for a promise from Hazare that he will end his fast should they meet his demands.
Congress, seen by many in an increasingly youthful India as an aged party either incapable of or indifferent to tackling graft, faces a bellwether election in India's biggest state of Uttar Pradesh this year and a general election in 2014, and is keen to get the issue off the headlines.
Singh and other senior ministers, taken by surprise by the scale of the public unrest, have abandoned a hardline approach to Hazare.
The initial poor handling of the issue led the party to Rahul Gandhi, turn to the youngest elected official in the Gandhi family political dynasty to try and reach out to Hazare in a speech to parliament this week.
"We are all aware that corruption is pervasive. It operates at every level," Gandhi told parliament on Friday. "In the last few months, Anna has helped the people to articulate this same sentiment (against corruption). I thank him for that."
But Hazare, who has stressed his intent to die in order to create an umbrella agency to investigate graft throughout politics, has come under growing criticism from some quarters that he is holding an elected parliament hostage.
"I have a fervent hope that he does (cease his fast today). We have scheduled discussions today as a special day," parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Bansal told CNN-IBN.
"The concerns are being addressed ... (but) every law to be made has to be made in the parliament."
(Writing by Henry Foy; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Ed Lane)