Thousands gather to support Indian anti-graft fast


The anti-corruption hunger strike by Indian activist Anna Hazare drew thousands of supporters to central New Delhi on Saturday as his populist campaign sought to face down the government.
The 74-year-old spoke briefly to crowds from a high podium before he reclined on cushions to be feted with speeches, chanting and live music during the second day of his public fast. “The fight will go on until we get a strong Lokpal (bill),” Hazare said, referring to his demand that anti-corruption legislation being considered by parliament is strengthened. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has been left floundering by a national swell of support for Hazare’s campaign, with many Indians saying years of anger at corrupt officials had reached boiling point.
Singh on Saturday struck a conciliatory note after previously dismissing Hazare’s tactics as undemocratic. “We are open to discussion, dialogue, we would like a broad national consensus to emerge,” he told reporters. “There is a lot of scope for give and take.” Public support for Hazare – particularly among the middle classes – soared when he was briefly arrested earlier this week before he was due to start his public fast.
“I think the business world is turning against the official culture,” said Somnath Mitra, an IBM managing consultant who attended the protest with company colleagues on Saturday. Mitra, 39, recalled being forced to pay Rs 33,000 in cash, for which he received no receipts, when registering two private properties last year. “It was effectively a bribe to get my work done,” he said.
Hazare now has permission to hold his fast at Ramlila, a muddy open-air venue in Delhi, for 15 days, and he has said he has already lost three kilograms (seven pounds) after refusing food since his arrest on Tuesday. Scenes of frenzied celebration erupted as Hazare travelled to the venue on Friday.
But his campaign organisers face a challenge in sustaining momentum due to the long holiday weekend and muggy monsoon weather. Several thousand people ranging from students to farm workers massed to witness Hazare’s fast on Saturday, though numbers were lower than some observers predicted after a huge pro-Hazare rally in Delhi during the week. “The funds in government treasuries are ours,” Hazare told the cheering crowds.
“The treasuries are not threatened by thieves but by those who guard it.” Prime Minister Singh, who was previously seen as above India’s corrupt officialdom, has been damaged by the protest movement, appearing out of touch on an issue of deep public concern. Singh told parliament on Wednesday that Hazare’s fast was a “totally misconceived” attempt to blackmail lawmakers into re-drafting legislation.