By Paul De Bendern
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's most famous yoga guru began a fast to the death on Saturday to demand reforms including the death penalty for corrupt officials in an anti-graft campaign that has undermined an embattled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The saffron-robed and bearded Swami Ramdev, who rose from an illiterate family to host a television show with 30 million viewers and own a "peace" island in Scotland, sat with thousands of followers in a tent the size of four football pitches in Delhi.
One newspaper called it "Yogitation."
"Since 1947 our leaders have failed us, they have given us independence but we still live in poverty and only the few are rich," said Balwinder Singh, a civil servant from the northern state of Punjab.
Hundreds of Indians angry about corruption scandals also fasted in the tent, while the guru's followers as far away as the state of Orissa and the city of Mumbai also began hunger strikes.
Such Ramdev's popularity in the electorally important states of north India that four government ministers met him after he descended from his private plane in Delhi to persuade him to stop. Negotiations have been fruitless.
His campaign is the latest embarrassment for a Congress party-led coalition hit by a string of corruption scandals including allegations of kickbacks at the Commonwealth Games and a telecoms scandal that may have cost the government up to $39 billion.
His fast comes after a similar one by social activist Anna Hazare, whose campaign rang a chord with millions of Indians and forced the government to make legislative concessions on an anti-corruption bill that effectively gives India an independent ombudsman to battle graft.
Ramdev's yoga demonstrations, filled with crowd-pleasing stunts such as headstands or making his belly dance inside his ribcage, are often punctuated by rambling lectures on corruption, black money or the government's failure to tackle Maoist rebels.
But few expect Ramdev will die for his cause. Like Hazare, most commentators expect some deal will be forged that will give the yoga guru enough for him to claim moral victory and possibly help the launch of his political party for 2014 elections.
Critics say he is also linked to a radical Hindu nationalist group.
The Hindu newspaper reported his fast had been planned for months.
The organization of his campaign was impressive.
Giant television screens broadcast Ramdev's meditation sessions and speech. There were abundant water supplies laid on in the harsh summer heat.
Politicians fear that outrage over corruption scandals, made all the harder to stomach by rising food and fuel prices, may turn into a national popular movement against the establishment.
India has largely remained unaffected by the violent protests that have rocked emerging economies in the Middle East and North Africa, fueled in part by high prices and corruption.
India ranked 78th on Transparency International's latest corruption index, a worse ranking than China.
Graft has long been a part of daily life, but the latest scandals - that have seen ministers jailed and business heavyweights questioned - are unprecedented.
(Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Robert Birsel)