Hazare pushes anti-graft laws


A popular anti-corruption activist ramped up the pressure on New Delhi for strong measures to fight corruption by staging a brief symbolic fast yesterday.

Surrounded by thousands of flag-waving supporters, Anna Hazare held a seven-hour fast in the capital to demand sweeping legislation to end India's culture of corruption, in which bribes are paid for everything from health care to marriage certificates.

The spectre of renewed protests led by the bespectacled Gandhian campaigner Anna Hazare come at a difficult time for Prime Minister Singh, who is increasingly seen as a lame duck at the half-way stage of his second five-year term.

Last week, at risk of losing key partners from the ruling coalition, Singh backtracked on a flagship reform to allow foreign investment in supermarkets.

Dressed in a crisp white kurta smock and cap, Hazare told hundreds of supporters that a draft legislation setting up a Lokpal (ombudsman) to investigate wrong-doing in government was a "betrayal."

"Fill up the jails if that is what's needed for a strong Lokpal bill. We'll ensure all the jails are filled, we won't leave a single one empty," he said to loud cheers at Jantar Mantar observatory, a traditional meeting point for political dissenters in Delhi.

Hazare has caught the imagination of a swelling middle class in India who are angry at the government's inability to crack down on rampant corruption after multi-billion dollar scams related to telecoms and the 2010 Commonwealth games came to light.

In August, he was arrested for three days just hours before he was due to begin a fast to the death with similar demands and was dismissed as an anarchist by Prime Minister Singh. He broke his fast, which he started in jail, after the government assured him of meeting his demands.

The turnout at yesterday's protest was seen as a barometer of support for the 74-year-old, who has threatened to campaign against the already troubled government in elections in India's most populous state early next year.

Hundreds of people with the Indian flag in hand and wearing "I am Anna" caps, sang patriotic songs as Hazare reached the venue of the strike on Sunday after praying at independence hero Mahatma Gandhi's memorial.

"Our government takes our money through taxes, through bribes and uses that again to buy votes. How can my grandchildren later say that they are proud to be Indians?" said 56-year-old H.S. Kapoor at the protest site.

Once strongly supportive, the Indian media has taken a more critical view of Hazare's Gandhian credentials in recent weeks after he appeared to support public flogging of alcoholics, said corrupt politicians should be hung and suggested an elderly politician who was slapped by a protestor had it coming. AP