India anti-graft activist fasts demanding strong ombudsman

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 11, 2011 2:24 AM
India anti-graft activist fasts demanding strong ombudsman

By Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A popular anti-corruption crusader who rocked the Indian government with street protests in the summer went on a day-long hunger strike Sunday and has warned of more to come if his demand for a tough law on graft are not quickly met.

Dressed in a crisp white kurta smock and cap, the bespectacled Gandhian campaigner Anna Hazare said "Hail Mother India" as he arrived at the Jantar Mantar observatory, a traditional meeting point for political dissenters in Delhi.

The turnout at Sunday's protest is seen as a barometer of support for the 74-year-old, who threatens to campaign against the already troubled government in elections in India's most populous state early next year.

In August, Hazare stopped eating for 13 days, drawing the backing of millions of Indians and forcing the government to agree to create a tough new ombudsman to investigate graft in public office.

But Hazare's image has been tarnished by accusations of financial misdeeds among his top aides, which they deny.

Hundreds of people with the Indian flag in hand and wearing "I am Anna" caps, sang patriotic songs as Hazare reached the venue of the strike Sunday after praying at independence hero Mahatma Gandhi's memorial.

"Our government takes our money through taxes, through bribes and uses that again to buy votes. How can my grandchildren later say that they are proud to be Indians?" said 56-year-old H.S. Kapoor at the protest site.

Organizers said they expected 7,000 people to show up later in the day for a speech by Hazare.

Hazare has threatened an indefinite hunger strike later this month, saying a bill in parliament to create the watchdog does not have a wide enough remit to tackle corruption by low-ranking bureaucrats and federal police.

The specter of renewed protests in support of Hazare come at a difficult time for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is increasingly seen as a lame duck just two years into his second term. Last week, at risk of losing key partners from the ruling coalition, he backtracked on a flagship reform to allow foreign investment in supermarkets.

Several India states go to the polls next year including the country's most important political region, Uttar Pradesh.

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The anti-graft bill is likely to be discussed next week by lawmakers and Hazare is adamant it must be passed in the form he wants before parliament closes for the year on December 21.

Hazare has caught the imagination of a swelling middle class in India who are angry at the government's inability to crack down on rampant corruption after multi-billion dollar scams related to telecoms and the 2010 Commonwealth games came to light.

Once strongly supportive, the Indian media has taken a more critical view of Hazare's Gandhian credentials in recent weeks after he appeared to support public flogging of alcoholics, said corrupt politicians should be hung and suggested an elderly politician who was slapped by a protestor had it coming.

(Additional reporting and writing by Anurag Kotoky; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Sanjeev Miglani)