Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare held a symbolic one-day hunger strike to protest what he said was the government’s reneging on a promise to pass a tougher version of a law aimed at curbing graft.
Hazare, whose 13-day fast in August and accompanying street protests roiled the government, warned yesterday that his supporters will renew their demonstrations unless the bill advocated by him is passed by parliament in the next two weeks. Thousands of flag-waving supporters congregated at Jantar Mantar, an 18th-century observatory and traditional rallying point in New Delhi, wearing Hazare T-shirts and badges.
“What you are witnessing is an explosion of frustration against corruption,” said D.K. Poddar, a 42-year-old lawyer carrying an Indian flag and wearing a cap adorned with the campaign’s “I am Anna” slogan. “Everywhere you go in India, you will find rampant corruption. The government doesn’t take this seriously.”
Hazare, 73, became a household name in India as his protest tapped nationwide anger over graft cases involving a member of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet, lawmakers and bureaucrats. Indian business leaders say a growing perception of corruption in governance is hurting investment in the $1.7 trillion economy that expanded last quarter at the slowest pace in almost two years after the central bank raised interest rates to slow inflation.
Hazare and his supporters last week rejected recommendations by a panel of Indian lawmakers that would exclude junior bureaucrats, politicians and judges from the scope of the proposed anti-corruption agency, known as the Lokpal.
Singh, who has called an all-party meeting on the issue for this week in a bid to reach a consensus within parliament, has 10 days to agree on a final version of the bill and present it to parliament if he’s to keep a public commitment to do so before the end of the national legislature’s winter session.
“Corruption is on the rise in India; that is why we have to continue protesting,” Hazare, dressed in the white cap and tunic of India’s independence movement, told the crowd of demonstrators yesterday. “We will keep going with this agitation until the government makes the necessary changes.”
Hazare has sought permission from the police to begin an indefinite hunger strike on Dec. 27 at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds, the site of his August fast, if the government fails this sitting to pass the measures he’s seeking.
Former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja, government officials and company executives are on trial in New Delhi on charges they conspired in 2008 to grant licenses to unqualified phone companies at below-market rates for personal benefit. Their actions may have cost the country $31 billion in revenue, according to India’s chief auditor. All deny wrongdoing.
Other bureaucrats have been jailed on charges they illegally benefited from contracts linked to last year’s staging of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
The last four sessions of parliament have been disrupted as opposition parties attacked the administration on corruption, inflation that has stayed above 9 percent even after 13 interest-rate increases since March 2010, and most recently Singh’s bid to open India’s retail sector to foreign supermarket chains including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Carrefour SA.
India fell four places in an annual ranking of corruption around the globe to a position below Liberia and Colombia. The world’s second-most populous nation came 95 out of 183 countries in the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index published this month by Berlin-based Transparency International.
Nitin Arora, a 19-year-old student with miniature Indian flags painted on his face was among those protesting yesterday in the capital. He said he came to support Hazare, because his family is fed up with having to pay bribes to government officials to secure basic public services such as getting a new passport.
“It really upsets me that my parents have to hand over their hard earned money,” said Arora. “The politicians don’t seem interested in doing anything about it because most of them are corrupt. That is why we support Hazare.”
Amid an outpouring of anger, Hazare ended his August hunger strike after lawmakers pledged support for anti-graft laws that would cover all of India’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, set up an ombudsman in each of the country’s states and create “citizen’s charters” for each ministry.
While the cross-party panel last week supported the latter two ideas, it argued they shouldn’t be enshrined within the corruption-fighting agency. The panel also restricted oversight of government departments to senior officials.
The government’s handling of Hazare’s movement, which included arresting the activist for three days, helped depress support for Singh’s administration to 20 percent by September from 30 percent in May, according to an opinion poll among 9,000 people across 28 cities by research company Nielsen Holdings NV and India’s Star News television channel.
Singh’s ruling Congress party faces at least five regional elections next year, including one in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state where campaigning is being led by Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi. In May, Congress’ second-biggest ally in the federal coalition, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that counts former minister Raja among its leaders, was routed in regional elections in its home state of Tamil Nadu, partly in a backlash against corruption.