Hazare, India Anti-Graft Crusader, Sets Conditions to End Fast

Prospects Dim for India Anti-Graft Deal
Supporters of Indian social activist Anna Hazare participate in a candlelight vigil in Hyderabad, India, on August 24, 2011. Photographer: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

Anna Hazare, the Indian campaigner fasting for tougher laws to combat corruption, set three conditions to break a hunger strike now in its 11th day after an appeal from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Hazare, 74, told his supporters that parliament should start discussions from today to appoint ombudsmen in all 28 Indian states, consider bringing lower rungs of the bureaucracy in the ambit of an anti-graft law and prepare a “citizens’ charter” to oversee ministries. The conditions have been conveyed to Singh, the activist said.

“On these three issues we will test” the lawmakers on their positions, Hazare said yesterday. Earlier, Kiran Bedi, one of his key aides and a former police officer, posted a comment on her Twitter Inc. account that “corrupt politicians will sabotage” their version of the bill.

Singh, without conceding to any of the key demands of Hazare, said yesterday that all views on the issue need to be taken on board and debated in parliament before a law is enacted. Singh is under pressure to tackle graft after the Comptroller and Auditor General said last year that opaque rules allowed the government to sell phone permits in 2008 in an “arbitrary manner,” costing the exchequer as much as $31 billion.

The latest development may help resolve the impasse that has drawn thousands of protesters to the Ramlila fair ground in the nation’s capital, the site of Hazare’s protest, said Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

‘Can’t Go On’

“This can’t go on indefinitely,” he said. “We are now in the last couple of days of this protest and the two sides may strike an agreement that neither side is happy with.”

A mob in the heart of the nation’s capital forced some outlets of Sony Corp., McDonald’s Corp. and Yum! Brands Inc.’s Pizza Hut to down their shutters yesterday in support of Hazare’s fast and stronger anti-corruption laws. The biggest rally was in New Delhi over the past weekend and drew as many 50,000 people. Campaigners for tougher rules want to bypass a panel of lawmakers, while the government and many political parties are against circumventing parliamentary processes.

The government’s version of the ombudsman bill excludes oversight of a serving prime minister, judges, most bureaucrats and actions of lawmakers in parliament. The activists want the country’s highest executive, judiciary and all bureaucrats covered, with powers to probe and prosecute.

‘Sticky Issues’

The three conditions, which Hazare wants discussed in parliament, are the “sticky issues” that have remained unresolved during talks between activists and government representatives, Arvind Kejriwal, a Hazare aide and freedom of information campaigner, said on Aug. 23.

An all-party meeting called by Singh two days ago failed to reach a consensus, with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party calling for the withdrawal of the government-introduced bill, which activists say lacks teeth.

Poole, England-based Fitness First Ltd. sent text messages to its members in New Delhi that its gymnasium in the city’s center will be shut, heeding a call by the New Delhi Traders Association to support Hazare. A bunch of 25 flag-waving, slogan-shouting demonstrators went around the central Connaught Place shopping area urging businesses to close.

“We just want to be safe and avoid putting customers in any harm’s way,” said Rajiv Kumar, the store manager of McDonald’s on one of the main thoroughfares of New Delhi.

‘Embodiment of Disgust’

Thousands of protesters have been gathering at the hunger-strike venue, singing patriotic songs and chanting slogans. Fearing forced eviction by the police, Hazare on Aug. 24 asked his supporters to court arrest and picket the residences of lawmakers.

“I respect his idealism; he has become the embodiment of the disgust and concern about tackling corruption,” Singh said in parliament yesterday. “We will find effective ways and means of discussing the Jan Lokpal bill along with the government version of the bill,” referring to the activists’ version of the proposed law.

Last week, Hazare drew condemnation from Singh, who called his campaign “totally misconceived” and a danger to India’s parliamentary democracy. Hazare has fashioned his hunger strike on those of his inspiration, India’s independence icon Mahatma Gandhi, and has asked his supporters to eschew any form of violence during their protest.

Delhi Games

A hunger strike by Hazare in April first grabbed the attention of television channels that had exposed graft cases in the heart of government, including alleged irregularities in completing contracts for last year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. The government invited social activists for talks on framing the Lokpal Bill. Hazare says their suggestions were ignored.

A former telecom minister, a federal lawmaker and businessmen have been jailed and are on trial in New Delhi over their role in the sale of mobile phone licenses.

The protesters are hearing “only statements” and “more assurances, which no one believes,” Bedi, Hazare’s aide said in a separate posting on Twitter yesterday. “Corrupt politicians see it as a graveyard. For the people, it is a ray of hope,” she wrote earlier.

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