Thousands gather as India graft impasse shows some signs of thaw

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 20, 2011 3:28 AM
Thousands gather as India graft impasse shows some signs of thaw

By Annie Banerji and Alistair Scrutton

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - At least 10,000 people gathered on Saturday to support a anti-corruption social activist who has galvanized 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 on his fourth day of 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-a-likes 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 earlier in the week, gave some signals of reaching out. Parliament published adverts in newspapers on Saturday asking for public inputs over anti-graft legislation.

"We have been able to get Anna & Co to see some reason,," Law Minister Salman Khursheed told the Economic Times. "We will wait and watch. We have to get down to dialogue."

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."

GALVANISING THE MIDDLE CLASS

Several scandals, including a telecoms bribery scandal that may have cost the government up to $39 billion, led to Hazare demanding anti-corruption measures. But the government bill creating an anti-graft ombudsman was criticized 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.

The protests, fanned by social networks, have not only rocked the ruling Congress party, they have sent shockwaves through the political class as a whole. There were more than 500 separate protests across India on Friday, local media reported.

Hazare is not some out-of-the-blue phenomenon, however. Deep-seated change has been underway for years in India as its once-statist economy globalizes, bolstered by a widely used freedom of information act, aggressive private media and the election of state politicians who have rejected traditional caste-support bases to win on governance issues.

Singh, 78, who is widely criticized as out of touch with his people, has dismissed the fast by Hazare as "totally misconceived" and undermining the parliamentary democracy.

Hazare went on hunger strike in April which he called off after the government promised to introduce a bill creating an anti-corruption ombudsman. The so-called Lokpal legislation was presented in early August, but activists slammed the draft version as toothless because the prime minister and judges were exempt from probes.

(Additional reporting by Arup Roychoudhury and Rajesh Kumar Singh, editing by Miral Fahmy)