Gandhi-Inspired Strike Corners Indian Government on Graft

Propped up by cushions and protected from the summer sun by a white tent, 71-year-old social activist Anna Hazare has vowed to fast to the death to rid India of the corruption he says is its biggest curse.

Hazare, dressed in the white cap and tunic of India’s independence movement, today enters the fourth day of a hunger strike on a pavement in central New Delhi, a protest to demand a role for him and his supporters in toughening draft anti-graft laws. Making speeches and singing hymns, his fast harks back to those of his inspiration, Indian freedom icon Mahatma Gandhi.

“I can see so much injustice in the country, and the government is not doing anything,” Hazare, a former soldier, told reporters at the protest site April 6. Since the newly independent country’s constitution came into force in 1950 “no law has been made to put a brake on corruption.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose former telecommunications minister is awaiting trial on corruption charges linked to the 2008 sale of mobile-phone licenses, has vowed to introduce the so-called Lokpal, or Ombudsman Bill, in the next session of parliament. Critics, including Hazare, say in their present form, the proposals lack the teeth to punish those guilty of robbing the nation.

Yesterday the government blinked, agreeing to form a committee of civic activists and government representatives to study the bill’s provisions. Hazare said he would continue his fast until his demands were met in full.

Growth Risk

“There are two outstanding issues on which there’s no agreement -- that is issuing an official notification to form the committee and making Hazare the chairman,” Telecommunications Minister Kapil Sibal said in New Delhi after talks that will continue today.

Investors in Indian shares consider graft as much of a barrier to economic progress as inflation, J.P. Morgan Asset Management said in a December 2010 report. Corruption in India poses a risk to the South Asian nation’s target of lifting economic growth above 9 percent and attracting overseas investment, auditing and consulting company KPMG said in March.

As Hazare claims his first scalps -- a Cabinet member he targeted resigned from a group of ministers tasked with tackling corruption -- pressure is building on Singh. Demonstrations continued in cities including Mumbai and Bangalore and protesters staged a candle-lit march around a Delhi monument. School children have been taken to see Hazare, who occasionally sips water from a metal cup.

Phone Protest

As many as 570,000 people have pledged support to Hazare’s campaign, registering their voice with a “missed call” -- dialing and quickly ringing off -- to a phone number listed on the “India Against Corruption” website. Bollywood actor Aamir Khan has expressed backing.

“Corruption is all pervasive and has become a part and parcel of society,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst at the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi. “The change will have to come from within society. Citizens will have to become an agent of change.”

Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party, appealed to Hazare to end his fast, assuring him that his views will receive the government’s “full attention.”

“The issues he has raised are of grave public concern,” Gandhi, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and no relation to Mahatma Gandhi, said in a statement. “There can be no two views on the urgent necessity of combating graft and corruption in public life.”

Graft Ranking

India ranked 87th out of 178 countries in the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index conducted by Transparency International, sharing that spot with Albania, Liberia and Jamaica.

Singh has had to bat away a barrage of graft allegations after the country’s auditor said second-generation airwaves were sold in 2008 at an “unbelievably low” price that stripped $31 billion from exchequer revenues. While former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja is at the center of a probe, company executives have been dragged in.

Billionaire Anil Ambani was questioned April 5 by a parliamentary panel investigating the permit sale. He declined to comment afterwards. Federal agencies April 2 laid charges against executives from his Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group and officials at other Indian companies.

Cheating, Forgery

Raja, charged with conspiring to benefit companies including the then-Swan Telecom, now known as Etisalat DB Telecom India Pvt., and Unitech, resigned Nov. 14, two days before the auditor’s report was submitted. He denies wrongdoing.

Raja and the other former government officials were charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The company officials were charged with “lesser offenses” under statutes relating to conspiracy, cheating and forgery. The trial is set to start April 13.

Government agencies are also investigating alleged fraud surrounding last October’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

Hazare, whose work in rural development won him some of India’s most prestigious civilian awards, says the ombudsman bill must create the machinery to independently investigate and prosecute any government officer, judge or politician.

Others object to his methods. Hazare’s “fast unto death” is “crossing the line of reasonableness,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who heads the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, wrote in the Indian Express newspaper. “A sense of unbridled virtue can also subvert democracy.”

The draft proposals, which were first introduced to parliament in 1968, have never been passed due to a lack of political will, say activists.

“This law has been pending in parliament for 42 years,” said Arvind Kejriwal, who runs Parivartan, a citizen’s group in New Delhi which works for accountability in governance. “What have they done all these years? You can’t amend that law, you have to replace that law.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Malavika Sharma in New Delhi at msharma52@bloomberg.net; Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at bpradhan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hari Govind at hgovind@bloomberg.net

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