Indian anti-graft activist vows to reform group

AP News
Posted: Nov 04, 2011 11:51 AM
Indian anti-graft activist vows to reform group

The charismatic leader of a popular Indian anti-corruption movement ended a 20-day vow of silence Friday with a promise to reform the leadership of his group amid growing criticism of his top aides.

Anna Hazare said he took the vow of silence to regain strength after a 12-day August hunger strike demanding strong anti-graft laws.

Hazare has been demanding that Parliament pass his sweeping proposal to create a powerful anti-corruption watchdog that would police all government officials, from the prime minister to the lowest village bureaucrat. The proposal, along with other versions of the bill, will be debated in Parliament's next session, which starts Nov. 22.

The hunger strike brought tens of thousands of ordinary Indians, fed up with the country's deeply entrenched corruption, to the New Delhi fairground where he held camp. Thousands more marched in support in cities across the country.

But in recent days his movement has been wracked by controversy.

Two leaders said it had grown too political and quit. A third said the team needed restructuring. Two of Hazare's closest aides also found themselves embroiled in their own scandals.

Hazare denied his aides were corrupt, and his two accused allies, Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal, stood next to him during his news conference. But he promised to make new rules to decide how top leaders were chosen.

"The movement started suddenly and we did not have time to think about the structure of the core committee," he told reporters in New Delhi on Friday.

Bedi, India's first high-ranking woman police officer and one of the movement's most visible faces, was found to have sent dozens of inflated travel bills to organizations, some of them charities, that had invited her to speak. Actual economy airfares were billed as business class and discounted tickets were billed as full fare to the tune of hundreds of thousands of rupees (thousands of dollars).

Bedi accepted that she had fudged her bills but claimed that all the money was meant to fund the good works of her own charity. She called the charges of corruption "silly" and "stupid," even as her organization said it would return the funds to any of the organizations that asked for them back.

Kejriwal, took extended leave from his government job as an income tax official before finally quitting, but refused to pay the 900,000 rupees ($18,000) government employment bond he had signed. He repaid the bond Thursday, under protest. His claim: he had spent his time working for the country and campaigning for a right to information law and shouldn't be asked to repay the debt.

The revelations took some of the sheen off a movement that started with massive middle class support.

"Those who moralize must meet the high standards they set for everyone else," Shekhar Gupta, the editor of the English language daily The Indian Express, said in a recent opinion piece.

The same newspaper had investigated Bedi's expense accounts.

The movement also came under criticism recently for actively campaigning against the ruling Congress party candidate in a by-election. Some in Hazare's camp said the organization sullied itself by being so overtly political, and two members of his leadership team resigned in protest.

On Friday, Hazare also demanded that the government pass the anti-graft legislation in its next session. Failure to do so would result in yet another hunger strike, this time for three days, he said, adding that his team would also begin a campaign across the country asking people to drop their support for the Congress party.