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Indian Graft Crusader Challenges Singh With Delhi Hunger Strike

Leader of India’s Corruption Protests Leaves Jail
Indian social activist Anna Hazare, in white, waves towards his supporters as he walks with Indian Guru Swami Agnivesh outside Tihar Jail in New Delhi, India, on August 19, 2011. Photographer: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Indian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare today enters the second day of a public hunger strike, watched by supporters, in a challenge to a government that has failed to douse criticism of its steps to curb graft.

“We will not leave this place” until stronger anti-corruption legislation is brought before parliament, Hazare, dressed in his trademark white tunic and cap, told the crowd yesterday after he reached the Ramlila ground in New Delhi from Tihar Jail, where he spent three nights.

Nationwide protests and candle-lit vigils over Hazare’s earlier detention -- fueled by social media websites and 24-hour coverage on television -- have put Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government on the defensive. While Hazare’s demands have tapped widespread anger over bribe taking, his direct-action tactics have been denounced by Singh as “totally misconceived.”

Hazare, 74, was taken into custody Aug. 16 as he prepared to break police restrictions and begin an indefinite hunger strike to demand that the prime minister’s office, judges and those bureaucrats omitted from the scope of the planned Lokpal, or Ombudsman, Bill be included within its ambit.

While authorities said he was free to leave Tihar the same day, Hazare refused to do so until conditions on his protest were eased. He was later allowed by the authorities to hold his protest for 15 days. He began fasting Aug. 16.

‘Bend a Little’

“Aggression from both the sides is easing now,” said Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “They will try to engage in dialogue, negotiate, bend a little bit and will work out some compromise so that a new form of the bill can emerge. But it will take some time.”

Singh’s administration, which has been embroiled by graft charges since October, has seen its legislative agenda grind to a halt 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. Federal investigators and the courts have charged and jailed the former telecommunications minister, a lawmaker and company executives tied to the case as their trials continue.

In Mumbai, the city’s tiffin carriers, who transport lunches every day, stopped work yesterday for the first time in 120 years to support Hazare.

‘Crusade Against Corruption’

“We have to make our contribution in the crusade against corruption because the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer,” said Raghunath Medge, president of the Bombay Tiffin Box Supply Charity Trust.

Amid demonstrations in large cities and charges of arrogance from political opponents, Singh on Aug. 17 defended the police decision to arrest Hazare, saying the protest leader’s attempt to impose his ideas on legislators through popular protest was “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 the proposed anti-corruption agency, 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.

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.

The Lokpal legislation has now been referred to a panel of lawmakers for scrutiny.

Singh’s government is considering introducing a Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill that will make it easier to remove judges accused of graft, and has proposals to bar candidates standing for regional or national assemblies if they face charges with a sentence of five years or more.

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