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Indian Anti-Graft Leader Stays in Jail as Fast Site Readied

Indian Anti-Graft Campaigner to Leave Jail
A supporter of Indian social activist Anna Hazare holds lit the candles and a Hazare sticker during a protest in New Delhi on August 17, 2011. Photographer: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Indian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare will spend one more night in jail as activists prepare the site for his public fast that may escalate a confrontation with the government over laws to combat graft.

Hazare, who was taken into custody Aug. 16 as he prepared to break police restrictions and begin an indefinite hunger strike to demand tougher measures to prosecute corrupt officials, will begin a 15-day protest at New Delhi’s Ramlila grounds tomorrow, Swami Agnivesh, a key supporter, told reporters. Hazare, who had been demanding the right to fast unhindered for a month, agreed to the new conditions after hours of talks with police who had initially said he must end his agitation after three days.

The hunger strike at a site capable of holding at least 20,000 people marks the protesters’ “entry to the battlefield,” Arvind Kejriwal, a close aide of Hazare and a freedom of information campaigner, said in comments broadcast on television channels. The real “fight is yet to start,” Kejriwal said. “The government has to bow down to the wishes of the people.”

The latest standoff between Hazare and the government -- fueled by social media websites, 24-hour TV coverage and widespread public anger over official malpractice -- deepens the damage to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration, which has been swamped by graft charges since October. His legislative agenda has stalled amid the allegations, the biggest of which involves the 2008 sale of permits to run mobile-phone services that the country’s auditor says may have cost the exchequer $31 billion.

Freedom Fight

The arrest of Hazare, a 74-year-old follower of Mahatma Gandhi who dresses in the white tunic and cap of the country’s independence struggle that he compares his fight to, has sparked peaceful demonstrations and candle-lit vigils attended by thousands of people in New Delhi and other cities including Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Patna in eastern Bihar state.

“It’s a rebellion against the corruption and extortion that takes place in India,” said Prem Shankar Jha, a political analyst. There’s a “lack of trust in the government.”

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’s second-biggest ally in the federal coalition was routed in state elections in May after the party’s leading family was embroiled in the phone-license charges.

‘Totally Misconceived’

Amid the growing urban demonstrations and charges of arrogance from political opponents, Singh yesterday defended the police decision to arrest Hazare, saying the protest leader’s attempt to impose his ideas on legislators through popular protest “is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy.”

Singh’s rivals, many of which have reservations over Hazare’s demands to give sweeping powers to anti-corruption agencies, have rounded on a prime minister who has twice this year had to publicly deny he’d become a lame-duck leader as the graft allegations forced ministers to resign.

“Any citizen or a group in the country has a right to campaign for or crusade for his views,” Arun Jaitley, a leader from main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said yesterday. “It is this right that the government is trying to crush.”

Corruption poses a risk to sustaining economic growth near 9 percent and winning overseas investment, auditing and consulting company KPMG said in March. India first introduced anti-corruption legislation in parliament four decades ago.

Independence Day Call

Singh used his Independence Day address on Aug. 15 to urge Hazare to take his grievances to parliament, not the street, and in his statement in parliament yesterday warned lawmakers of the potential damage to the country’s economy from a prolonged period of “internal dissension.”

A hunger strike by Hazare in April first tapped nationwide anger over graft cases, including alleged irregularities in completing contracts for last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, and forced the government to invite social activists for talks on framing new regulations to fight corruption.

After those consultations, Singh’s cabinet this month presented to parliament a bill that excludes oversight of a serving prime minister, judges, parliament and most bureaucrats.

The legislation has been referred to a panel of lawmakers for scrutiny. Critics, including Hazare, say the proposals in the so-called Lokpal, or Ombudsman Bill, lack teeth.

While the demands of Hazare and his supporters to include possible prosecution of the prime minister and the higher judiciary in the ombudsman bill aren’t “justified, the government has to find a way” to appease the activists, Jha said by phone in New Delhi.

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