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India moves for talks with anti-graft activist

New Delhi, August 22, 2011

India's government tentatively moved to open talks with an anti-corruption activist who has shed 5kg (11 lbs) in a week-long hunger strike that has earned him more public support at the expense of embattled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The 74-year-old Anna Hazare spent the seventh day of his fast lying down on a makeshift stage on an open ground in the capital as electric fans cooled him in the humid monsoon heat, where temperatures were reaching the mid-30s Celsius (95 Fahrenheit).     

Both sides said at the weekend they are open to talks, with Singh saying there was a "lot of scope for give and take." Singh was under pressure to end the impasse after a widely panned crackdown last week saw Hazare and thousands of his supporters briefly arrested and sent to jail.   

"The government sent an innocuous three page, unsigned note yesterday which summarised their position -- as if we need to know that," Kiran Bedi, a former police officer and one of India's best known anti-graft campaigners who works with Hazare, told Reuters.

Local media said the government has nominated mediators for the crisis, but Bedi said there had been no request so far a meeting. The government was not immediately available for comment.      

With key state elections next year that pave the way for a 2014 general election, the government is keen to end a crisis that has paralysed policy making and parliament and added to Singh's unpopularity amid high inflation and corruption scams.

At least 50,000 people protested on Sunday to support Hazare and on Monday, a holiday in the capital, thousands began to gather again. Many waited under makeshift tents, flapping newspapers in their faces to beat the heat.      
Hazare is demanding that the government pass a tough corruption bill in parliament by the end of the month and millions of Indians, from Bollywood stars and models to poor villagers, were inspired by his protest to take to the streets.  

His campaign has struck a chord with India's rising middle class, many sick of endemic bribes and angry at a series of corruption scandals that have touched top politicians and businessmen in Asia's third largest economy. 

"Our demand that they pass the bill by the end of the month remains unchanged. It's what the people want," Bedi said.

Hazare's team members have said this is not a fast to death -- he is also drinking water. The activist has carried out scores of hunger strikes against governments in the last few decades.

Criticism of Hazare's hunger strike has also surfaced from activists who say it is setting a bad precedent by holding democratic institutions hostage.  

Critical of Hazare's bill, the civil rights organisation, the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), said it would introduce its own anti-graft bill to parliament. 

"While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare's demands are certainly not," Booker prizing-winning novelist and social activist Arundhati Roy wrote in The Hindu newspaper.

"The (Hazare) bill is a draconian anti-corruption law in which a panel of carefully chosen people will administer a giant bureaucracy," Roy added.

In a sign of tentative efforts by a fumbling government to take the initiative, a ruling Congress party lawmaker has also sent Hazare's bill to a parliamentary committee for consideration, meeting a demand of the protesters. 

Hazare was briefly jailed on Tuesday in a bid to prevent him from massing support for his fast, but he refused to leave prison until the government allowed him to continue his vigil, in public, for 15 days. He was released on Friday to huge cheering crowds and widespread media coverage. 

For many, the pro-Hazare movement has highlighted the vibrant democracy of an urban generation that wants good governance rather than government through regional strongmen or caste ties -- a transformation that may be played out in 2012 state polls.

Several scandals, including a telecoms bribery scam that may have cost the government up to $39 billion, led to Hazare demanding anti-corruption measures. But the government bill creating an anti-graft ombudsman was criticised as too weak as it exempted the prime minister and the judiciary from probes. 

The main Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is organising a nationwide protest against the government on Thursday, while a group of left parties is planning a national protest on Tuesday. - Reuters




Tags: India | Corruption | hunger strike |

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