Anna Hazare, leader of an anti-corruption campaign in India, ended a hunger strike today after lawmakers pledged a tougher law to combat graft.
Hazare, 74, who has fashioned his protest methods on those of Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi, accepted coconut water mixed with honey from two girl children, one a Muslim and another a Dalit, the lowest rung of the Indian caste system, to break his 13-day fast. The deadlock between civil society activists and Hazare’s supporters sparked protests nationwide, underscoring public anger against corruption.
“All your efforts of the past 13 days have paid off,” he told cheering supporters at the Ramlila fair ground in the capital, New Delhi. “We’ve shown the whole world how to organize a movement in a non-violent way.” The people gathered at the site vowed that they will neither give nor take a bribe.
Both houses of Parliament yesterday passed a resolution agreeing “in principle” to three conditions set by Hazare. His aides and cabinet members have sparred over a bill that activists say is crucial to deter corruption in the South Asian country. Protesters, who said the government’s version of the bill lacked teeth, wanted to push through their own, while the ruling Congress party and others said parliamentary rules must be obeyed.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration, which is embroiled in a series of corruption allegations, is under pressure to tackle the issue three years before he seeks the endorsement of voters for a third consecutive five-year term. The sale of phone permits in 2008, which the nation’s auditor says was at below-market prices and “arbitrary,” fueled resentment nationwide and led to the imprisonment of a minister, a lawmaker and many company officials.
The public’s confidence in the democratic process is “rejuvenated,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies. “Hopefully, we will see a stronger anti-corruption bill.”
Hazare on Aug. 25 called on parliament to start discussions on establishing ombudsmen in all the states, to make anti-graft laws more wide-ranging, and to prepare a “citizens’ charter” to oversee ministries.
The demands, termed “sticky issues” by Hazare’s supporters, had prevented a resolution to the impasse.
“These issues have been sorted for the time being,” Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Singh’s main negotiator, told Times Now television channel. “We couldn’t allow the situation to deteriorate. The concern about corruption is genuine as it affects all.”
In New Delhi yesterday, people cheered, shouted slogans when Hazare announced an end to his fast that evoked nationwide support. The biggest demonstration in the capital on Aug. 21 drew as many as 50,000 people.
Supported by cushions and surrounded by children beneath a giant black and white portrait of Gandhi, Hazare, who has lost almost 16 pounds since beginning his fast, said that public support has given him energy.
“It’s only half a victory,” Hazare said yesterday. “Total victory is yet to come.”
While draft proposals for a corruption ombudsman have been presented to parliament on eight separate occasions, the first being in 1968, they were never approved.
The Comptroller and Auditor General said last year that opaque rules allowed the government to sell airwaves in an “unfair and inequitable manner,” potentially costing the exchequer as much as $31 billion.
The government’s version of the ombudsman bill excludes oversight of a serving prime minister, judges, most bureaucrats and the actions of lawmakers in parliament. The activists want the country’s highest executive, judiciary and all bureaucrats covered, with sweeping powers to probe and prosecute.
“I respect his idealism; he has become the embodiment of the disgust and concern about tackling corruption,” Singh told parliament Aug. 25. He earlier condemned Hazare’s campaign as “totally misconceived” and posing a danger to India’s parliamentary democracy.
A hunger strike by Hazare in April grabbed the attention of some media that had exposed graft cases, including alleged irregularities in completing contracts for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. The government invited social activists for talks on framing the Lokpal Bill. Hazare says their suggestions were ignored.
“A new model in Indian democracy has been set up with legislators and civil society working together,” said Rao at the Centre for Media Studies. “It’s a turning point and will deepen democracy.”