Thousands gather as graft impasse begins to thaw


Staff member
New Delhi: At least 10,000 people gathered Saturday to support an anti-corruption social activist who has galvanised much of India against the government with his hunger strike, amid some signs of a compromise to end the political impasse.

Anna Hazare, a 74-year-old self-styled Gandhian activist lay on a stage fasting at an open ground in the capital, a hunger strike he says will continue until the government passes tougher anti-graft legislation.

At the open grounds, people distributed food to a crowd that included many middle-class office workers and young students. Several people dressed as Gandhi look-alikes mingled with the protesters.

Hazare left jail on Friday, to huge cheering crowds and 24-hour media fanfare. He had been briefly arrested on Tuesday, but then refused to leave jail until the government allowed him to continue his public fast for 15 days.

Hazare's campaign has struck a chord with millions of Indians, especially the expanding middle-class sick of endemic bribes, and has become a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as his fumbling government battles corruption scandals.

There were some signs that the government, which has its own anti-corruption bill in parliament, and Hazare's supporters, were looking for a compromise.

The government, which took a hard line against Hazare by arresting him and thousands of his supporters last week, gave some signals of reaching out. One of Hazare's main supporters, lawyer Prashant Bhushan, told The Indian Express that "if the government convinces us about its point of view, we will accept".

Several scandals

Several scandals, including a telecoms bribery scandal that may have cost the government up to $39 billion (Dh143.2 billion), led to Hazare demanding anti-corruption measures. But the government bill creating an anti-graft ombudsman was criticised as too weak.

For many, the pro-Hazare movement has heralded the vibrant democracy of an urban generation that wants good governance rather than government through regional strongmen or caste ties — a transformation that may be played out in 2012 state polls that will pave the way for a 2014 general election.

"The times when you could rule India without its urban middle class are now over," wrote commentator Shekhar Gupta in The Indian Express.

A weak political opposition means that the government should survive the crisis, but it could further dim the prospect for economic reforms and hurt the Congress party electorally.

Dressed in his trademark white cap, kurta and spectacles, the slight 74-year-old Hazare has evoked memories of the ascetic independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, who is revered as the father of the nation. A medical team is on standby to monitor Hazare's health.

A sharp deterioration in his condition could further worsen the crisis for the government, although his supporters say it is not a fast-to-death.

Roy lashes out

Social activist Anna Hazare promised more fights in the days ahead — for land reforms, farmers' rights and a better education system, adding that he will "not give up".

"Farmers are forced to commit suicide. Their lands are being taken forcibly ...we have to fight for farmers. The education system has become so corrupt that we have to pay money to get our children admitted in schools and colleges," he said.

Meanwhile, Aruna Roy, member of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, yesterday hit out at the ongoing protest by Team Anna and said no one should be allowed to hijack democratic institutions.

Roy said Hazare's indefinite fast to get the civil society's version of the Lokpal Bill passed was wrong. She said Hazare was "ill advised and it is wrong to undermine democratic institutions".

Roy also said a version of the Lokpal bill drafted by the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), of which she is a member, will be presented to the parliament's standing committee. "We will present our views before the standing committee. We hope the consultations will result in a good Lokpal Bill," said Roy.