Criticism grows against Indian anti-graft activist

AP News
Posted: Aug 22, 2011 9:30 AM
Criticism grows against Indian anti-graft activist

Criticism mounted Monday against an Indian activist's hunger strike, with public figures saying it threatens democracy and verges on demagoguery, even as thousands crowded his protest demanding stronger anti-corruption legislation.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh _ whose government has been beset by scandal _ appeared to dismiss Anna Hazare's demands, saying "there is no magic wand that can solve the problem in one stroke."

But the diminutive 73-year-old Hazare remained undaunted. Encouraged by TV cameras and thousands of chanting supporters, he has vowed to fast indefinitely until authorities pass his version of a bill _ instead of the government's draft _ creating a powerful anti-corruption watchdog.

He has faced little criticism since beginning his fast last Tuesday, but prominent activists have begun speaking out as his message gains traction in public debate.

"The props and the choreography, the aggressive nationalism and flag waving ... signal to us that if we do not support The Fast, we are not 'true Indians,'" Arundhati Roy, one of India's best-known writers and activists, wrote Monday in The Hindu newspaper.

She bashed Hazare's bill as "so flawed that it is impossible to take seriously," saying that it ignores other prominent institutions like corporations and the media.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands carrying signs saying "I am Anna Hazare" have protested across India to support the hunger strike. TV channels were giving 24-hour news coverage including urgent updates on Hazare's weight, and TV anchors have declared "India is One."

Hazare _ styling himself after Indian freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi _ has clearly touched a nerve in a country wearied by rampant corruption. Everyone from poor rural farmers to urban middle-class professionals complain of having to pay bribes for basic services, including health care, school admission and registration of death.

No one disputes Hazare's essential message that corruption is harming India. But critics questioned his demand to give the proposed watchdog authority to investigate and prosecute top judges and the prime minister. In many democracies, judges and top elected officials have immunity while in office to protect them from politically motivated prosecutions.

Singh noted his government had only recently tabled its ombudsman bill for a parliamentary debate that would "take time" as lawmakers seek consensus. He expressed frustration with the protests, saying: "I feel the complexity of the task is not adequately appreciated."

Hazare's insistence, through a hunger strike, that only his proposal can fix the problem has also unnerved civic leaders who dispute the impression that Hazare and his team represent all of India.

"Their distrust of Parliament is hazardous and also unjustified by past experience of free India," Harsh Mander, an activist who sits on the National Advisory Council that helps set government social policy, wrote in the Hindustan Times.

Others said Hazare's demands smacked of demagoguery and trampled democratic institutions.

"This whole 'Are you with us? If you are not with us, then you are against me'" is reminiscent of rhetoric used by then-President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war, said Nandan Nilekani, a former businessman now leading India's mammoth project to give its 1.2 billion citizens ID cards.

"I don't buy this argument that, just because you have proposed a different path, that means you are against us and therefore you are pro-corruption," he told the NDTV news channel.

Former parliamentary speaker Somnath Chatterjee told CNN-IBN television that the protest was become a "crusade" against the government and the prime minister. "It sounds rather anti-democratic to me."

More than 70 civil society leaders including artists, students, doctors, lawyers and rights advocates sent a letter to the prime minister accusing Hazare of masquerading as the leader of an all-inclusive movement.

"Only the naive would fail to notice the organized forces that are behind Anna Hazare's campaign," it said, accusing a Hindu nationalist group of stoking the campaign.

Representatives of India's bottom-caste dalits, or untouchables, said Hazare's bill ignored protections needed most by the poor.

"It is an upper-caste, middle-class movement and it addresses their issues _ such as bribes paid to the police or at passport offices. Peasants, vulnerable sections, don't fall in their purview," dalit activist Arun Khote was quoted over the weekend as saying by Business Standard newspaper.

Hazare seemed to be defying his critics when he declared Sunday that his following represented a "people's parliament" that is "higher than the nation's Parliament."

On Monday his aides said Hazare wanted the prime minister to send a representative for direct negotiations and complained there were still no concessions despite nearly seven days fasting.

"None of our demands has been included," activist Arvind Kejriwal said. "There is no agreement between civil society and government."

In the meantime, Hazare's team said he had lost 11 pounds (5 kilograms). Authorities are required to intervene if Hazare's life is at risk, as suicide is illegal in India.


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