Indian yoga guru begins fast to death


India’s most famous yoga guru began a mass fast to the death on Saturday to demand reforms including the death penalty for corrupt officials in an anti-graft campaign that has undermined an embattled and scandal-tainted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The saffron-robed and bearded Swami Ramdev, who rose from an illiterate family to host a television show with 30 million viewers and owns a “peace” island in Scotland, sat with thousands of followers in a tent the size of four football pitches in Delhi. Tapping into spiralling voter anger at corruption as Asia’s third largest economy booms, the guru has called on the government to pursue billions of dollars in illegal funds abroad and the withdrawal of high denomination bank notes.
One newspaper called it “Yogitation” , others called it a publicity stunt. “We are not deviating … Our issues are black money, corruption,” Ramdev told a thunderous crowd as he started his hunger strike in a tent where hundreds of ceiling fans whirred in the summer heat. “And we have to stay firm.” “Nothing is impossible, everything is possible and we are not going to be defeated.”
His campaign is the latest embarrassment for a Congress party-led coalition hit by graft scandals including allegations of kickbacks at the Commonwealth Games and a telecoms scam that may have cost the government up to $39 billion.
Graft has long been a part of daily life from getting an electricity connection to signing business deals, but the latest scandals – that have seen a minister jailed and business billionaires questioned – are unprecedented.
Such is Ramdev’s popularity in the electorally important states of north India that four government ministers, including Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, met him in Delhi after he descended from his private plane to persuade him to stop. Negotiations have so far been fruitless. Investors worry the latest troubles will again force the government to pay less attention to reform bills, such as making it easier for industry to acquire land, postponed due to opposition protests over graft causing parliamentary deadlock.
Thousands of Indians also fasted in the tent while the guru’s followers as far away as the state of Orissa and the city of Mumbai also began hunger strikes. While many followers are poor, others in the tent were well dressed professionals, mingling with foreign tourists and villagers who had travelled hundreds of miles to see him.