Government Grapples With Hunger Striker

New Delhi (AFP): The central government scrambled for a response today as a hunger-strike protest over corruption by a 73-year-old Gandhi devotee entered its fourth day with growing public support.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held crisis talks with ministers and briefed President Pratibha Patil on the standoff, which has caught the nation’s attention at a time of rising public anger over graft.

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare (right) with Swami Agnivesh (left). Hazare is being monitored by doctors during his hunger strike. (AFP photo)

Crowds grew at the makeshift camp set up in New Delhi by social activist Anna Hazare, who started his fast on Tuesday. He spent the day addressing cheering supporters or resting on a mattress onstage.

The use of methods made famous by Mahatma Gandhi, who pioneered fasting as a form of protest, and frail Hazare’s physical resemblance to the father of the nation have helped to spread the message and galvanise support.

“I appeal to Anna Hazare to end the fast,” Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee told reporters on Friday, echoing pleas from the head of the ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi and cabinet colleague Kapil Sibal, who is telecom minister.

Hazare’s main demand is that members of civil society should sit on a committee drafting the Lokpal (Ombudsman) Bill which would give teeth to existing anti-corruption laws enabling the prosecution of public officials.

The government has offered to give 50 percent of seats on the committee to civil society members, but the two sides are still wrangling over other details and a defiant Hazare appears in no mood to compromise.

“I have limited energy. I have no money, no big house and no gold, but I have support from the people and I see God’s will in it,” Hazare, who is being monitored by doctors, told supporters.

A Facebook campaign backing him has garnered 150,000 members, while a separate petition from campaign group Avaaz drew more than 100,000 signatures in 15 hours.

Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan has written a letter to the former army driver, identifying himself with “the thousands who are fully supportive of your efforts,” local media reported.

In the meantime, helped by blanket coverage in the national media and a highly organised publicity team, the campaign is developing into a broader movement against corruption.

Protest marches have been held in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Mumbai among other cities.

Public anger is being fuelled by a series of recent scandals that have damaged Singh’s government.

The Delhi Commonwealth Games last October were viewed as riddled with graft, while the allegedly fraudulent sale of telecom licences in 2008 caused losses estimated at billions of dollars to the national treasury.

Last month, leaked US embassy cables suggested the government bribed lawmakers in 2008 to secure victory in a crucial confidence vote.


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