By Kaustubh Kulkarni
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare began a three-day hunger strike in India's financial hub to protest a 'toothless' anti-corruption bill being debated in parliament on Tuesday, seeking to stoke public support for stronger legislation.
Hazare, 74, channeled middle-class frustration with everyday graft and multi-billion dollar scandals in Asia's No. 3 economy this summer, forcing the government to agree to draft and pass anti-corruption legislation before the year ends.
Parliament on Tuesday began debating the Lokpal bill, first proposed in 1968 to create a strong anti-corruption ombudsman. A vote is due later this week, but Hazare is not satisfied.
"The government is cheating the people," he said as he started the hunger strike, adding that the bill as it stands would not weed out corruption. "One day the people will teach the government a lesson."
Hazare repeated a threat to campaign against the Congress party and picket leaders' homes if the ombudsman does not have powers to oversee the federal police force.
Turnout was tiny on Tuesday compared to the crowds of tens of thousands that accompanied him during a two week-long fast in August. Hazare aide Vishwambhar Chaudhari admitted there was confusion over the purpose of the new hunger strike.
"There is neither an agenda nor a key objective for this strike, hence it has failed to attract supporters," Chaudhari said from the vast but mostly-empty palm tree-fringed ground in balmy Mumbai, adding he hoped numbers would pick up.
Hazare's protests set the political agenda in 2011, drawing attention to government graft and weakening Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is keen to put the corruption debate to bed quickly and focus on a string of state elections and economic reform in the New Year.
But Singh may struggle to pass the bill in its present form since his coalition does not enjoy a majority in the upper house of parliament.
SOME CHANGES POSSIBLE
The government could accept some amendments to the bill after leader of the opposition in the lower house, Sushma Swaraj, echoed Hazare's concerns during a rowdy debate.
"The bill is inadequate. The bill has lots of flaws, a lot of inconsistencies. We expected government to bring a bill that will remove corruption," she said.
Both the ruling Congress party and the Swaraj's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, appeared to be in election mode in parliament, with the government trying to win over Muslim voters with a promise of affirmative action jobs in the planned ombudsman's office.
Scandals have tainted Singh's second term, with a former minister and other senior officials in jail over the flawed sale of telecoms licenses in 2007-8 that cost the exchequer up to $39 billion in lost revenues, according to a government audit.
But Hazare's own image has been dented by accusations of financial misdeeds among close aides.
"The unity and leadership quality have become a little distorted in my mind. It makes me ask 'who do I believe?', you know?," said 27-year-old chartered accountant Jagdish, who said he supported the cause more than the leaders.
Organizers had predicted about 100,000 protesters would accompany Hazare in Mumbai, but the initial turnout was not more than 2,000, a Reuters witness said.
A similarly thin crowd showed up in New Delhi at a ground that received tens of thousands of protesters in August.
Concerns about the elderly activist's health prompted him to move the latest protest to Mumbai from chilly Delhi. Hazare says he will be back in the capital later this week to picket the home of Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi.
(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Ed Lane)