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Activist Anna Hazare's fast plan for Indian anti-corruption laws

For many, anti-graft activist Anna Hazare allows them to vent their frustration with a government increasingly seen as inept and incapable of dealing with the slew of recent corruption scandals.

Anna Hazare says he has no political ambitions
Anna Hazare says he has no political ambitions

NEW DELHI // India's government has been hard hit by a slowing economy and a parliamentary logjam. For many, anti-graft activist Anna Hazare allows them to vent their frustration with a government increasingly seen as inept and incapable of dealing with the slew of recent corruption scandals.

Mr Hazare, who held what he called a day-long hunger strike yesterday, has tapped a nerve in a country where millions live on less than a dollar a day and daily life depends on bribes - at the smallest and highest levels.

Ratan Singh is 84. He is a retired civil servant who said he had to pay a bribe of 1,000 Indian rupees (Dh70) to another official just to get a wedding licence for his daughter.

"We pay taxes and the politicians eat the money. They take our money and send their children to shop and study abroad," he fumed yesterday during Mr Hazare's protest.

Mr Hazare's token fast as well as his rant against the Congress-led government comes ahead of his plans for potentially much longer hunger strike on December 27.

Mr Hazare went on hunger strikes in April and August, trying to force the government to pass his version of an anti-corruption bill that is still stalled in parliament.

On Friday, the Indian cabinet was supposed to hold discussions on the government's version of the legislation, known as the Lokpal, or ombudsman, bill. But parliament was adjourned before the bill could be tabled.

In July, the government passed a version of the bill that kept the prime minister, the judiciary and lower bureaucracy out of is ambit.

Yesterday, more than 1,500 people gathered at Jantar Mantar, an ancient observatory, chanting slogans borrowed from India's independence, such as "Vande Mataram". (I bow to thee, Mother) and waving the Indian tri-coloured flag.

"He is our hope," said Nitish Pathak, 21, a student of business studies at the Indian Institute of Planning and Management in Delhi.

"We go about our daily lives steeped in corruption and then a man like him comes along and makes us realise what we should stand up for."

Mr Hazare says he has no political ambitions. But he plans to travel the country to campaign against the Congress government, ahead of elections. Federal elections are in 2014. State elections in some states will take place early next year.

"Why should they be allowed to stay in power when they are not allowing a strong anti-corruption bill to be passed?" he said.

"They think that our agitation cannot do anything. I will show them. I will campaign in five states going for assembly polls."

Key states are due to go to the polls, including Uttar Pradesh - the most populous and one of the poorest - Gujarat, racked by communal violence in 2002, and the remote north-eastern state of Manipur, home of a decades-old secessionist rebellion.

Mr Hazare was also joined by in his one-day fast by members of the opposition, including the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, Communist Party and the Samajwadi Party, which is contesting the Congress party for control of Uttar Pradesh, the bellwether for national politics.

Most of them chose to take potshots at the government.

Brinda Karat, of the Indian Communist Party said: "when this government was in opposition, they argued that the prime minster must be covered by the Lokpal."

For its part, the government condemned Mr Hazare's latest protest, calling it unproductive and accusing him of "promoting violence".

"The Lokpal bill cannot be made at Jantar Mantar," said Rashid Alvi, Congress spokesman.

The government has long argued Mr Hazare is undermining the parliamentary process by dragging the debate out of parliament house and onto the street.

The parliamentary debate meant little for the thousands gathered to watch Mr Hazare.

Food stalls, face painters and hawkers were selling Anna Hazare souvenirs and the Indian flag, tri-colour bracelets and the Hazare hat, known as a topi, with the words, "I am Anna" emblazoned on the sides.

Rama Kant, 40, from the state of Jharkhand, stood on his head for an hour and a half. Mr Kant, a yoga practitioner and a social worker, said: "This is symbolic of how the Indian government is today, their priorities are upside down."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae