India PM calls all-party meet on anti-graft protests
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's premier has called an all-party meeting for Wednesday to seek an end to nationwide protests led by a 74-year self-styled Gandhian activist whose health is a growing concern as he enters a second week of fasting.
Anna Hazare has lost nearly six kgs (13.2 lbs) since he began his fast to demand a bill for creating an autonomous powerful anti-corruption agency, a campaign that has drawn support from the middle class and seen tens of thousands protest against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government.
Hazare remained lying on a public stage on open ground in the capital New Delhi, surrounded by hundreds of supporters in the monsoon heat where open toilets and spilling waste were starting to cause outbreaks of food poisoning and illnesses.
"His health is weakening by the hour," Kiran Bedi, a former police officer and one of India's best known anti-graft campaigners who works with Hazare, told Reuters.
"But so far the doctors say he is not in danger."
With key state elections next year that pave the way for a 2014 general election, the government must end a crisis that has paralyzed policy making and parliament and added to Singh's unpopularity amid high inflation and corruption scams.
Many of India's middle class, the fasted growing population segment, have joined forces with Hazare to protest a system that requires bribes for everything from driver's licenses to birth certificates and a series of graft scandals that have touched top politicians and businessmen in Asia's third largest economy.
But while Singh has hinted he is open to dialogue and there are moves to tweak the government's own heavily-criticized graft bill in parliament to meet some of Hazare's demands, Singh still has not sent any official representatives to meet with Hazare.
"I only see that the government is organizing itself, but nothing in concrete has come to us," Bedi said.
Hazare, who has carried out scores of hunger strikes over the last few decades to pressure governments, has been visited by Hindu gurus, former judges and Bollywood actors. But he has refused to have any politicians on his stage.
Hazare's deteriorating health could force the government to decide whether to force feed him -- a move that could spark further protests against a fumbling government of elderly ministers widely seen as out of touch.
A group of left and regional party members staged a sit in of parliament on Tuesday, one of two opposition party protests against the government this week. The main Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is organizing a nationwide protest against the government on Thursday.
In another sign of possible compromise, Jairam Ramesh, a minister and Congress Party stalwart, publicly lent support to Hazare's demand that his team only negotiate with mediators from the prime minister's office, or with Rahul Gandhi, the son of the Congress party chief, as opposed to a third party.
"That is a way out," Jairam Ramesh told reporters On Monday. He also said the government was mulling introducing a separate bill to tackle graft in the lower orders of bureaucracy, which had been another demand from Hazare.
But criticism of Hazare's hunger strike has also surfaced from activists and academics who say it is setting a bad precedent by holding democratic institutions hostage with his uncompromising stand. There have been criticisms from Muslim groups that he is too close to radical Hindu groups.
Hazare was briefly jailed last Tuesday, a move the government sought to reverse quietly. But he refused to leave prison until the government allowed him to continue his vigil, in public, for 15 days. He was released on Friday to huge cheering crowds and widespread media coverage.
Several scandals, including a telecoms bribery scam that may have cost the government up to $39 billion, led to Hazare demanding anti-corruption measures. But the government bill creating an anti-graft ombudsman was criticized as too weak as it exempted the prime minister and the judiciary from probes.
(Added reporting by Manoj Kumar; Editing by Paul de Bendern and Ed Lane)
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Protesters respond to calls to defend their demonstration from possible police intervention. Slideshow