India's leaders try harder to douse graft protests
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's government Tuesday stepped up efforts to end national anti-corruption protests led by an ailing 74-year-old social activist as he entered a second week of fasting.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, under fire for failing to react to the biggest social protests in decades, wrote a personal letter to activist Anna Hazare and called for a meeting of political party leaders to try to end the impasse. A minister also met a Hazare aide for talks.
There were also reports that the finance minister -- one of the country's most experienced and powerful politicians -- was appointed to negotiate with leaders of the protests, but a spokesman for the prime minister denied this.
Self-styled Gandhian activist Hazare has lost nearly six kgs (13.2 lbs) since he began his fast to demand a bill for creating an autonomous anti-corruption agency, a campaign that has drawn support mainly from the middle class against Singh's government.
"Over the last few days, I have watched with increasing concern the state of your health," Singh wrote in a letter.
"At worst, our paths and methodologies may differ, though I do believe that even those differences have been exaggerated."
Hazare's protest prompted the government to introduce the bill into parliament in August, though his supporters have slammed the existing draft as toothless.
The bill is now parked with a parliamentary standing committee. The protesters want the government's draft bill withdrawn and their own version passed by the end of the month, a demand which senior government figures have said is unrealistic and undemocratic.
But in another attempt at compromise, Singh also said in the letter that Hazare's version of the bill could be also be discussed in parliament. There were also reports the government might yield to a key demand to include the prime minister in the ombudsman's ambit.
Hazare remained lying or sitting on a public stage on open ground in the capital New Delhi for much of the day, surrounded by at least 10,000 supporters in the monsoon heat where open toilets and spilling waste were starting to cause outbreaks of food poisoning and illness.
"We made an attempt," Salman Khurshid, the Law Minister sent to talk with Hazare's team, told reporters after his meeting. "We didn't come with an agenda. So no outcome," he said, adding: "we are trying to understand what the excitement is about and we have heard many things that sadden us."
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 fastest 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.
By mid-afternoon Tuesday, thousands had gathered in the muddy, water-logged protest ground in Delhi. As a popular actor led songs and chants on a stage, a large number of students were walking in a procession, or passing by in trucks, shouting anti-government slogans.
Hazare was sitting on a stage, seemingly enjoying the music and waving at the large crowd holding flags. Although visibly weaker, he tried to assure his followers about his health.
"People should continue with this struggle even if I'm not there," he said. "This is our second freedom struggle."
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.
His 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.
"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."
A group of left and regional party members staged a sit in of parliament Tuesday, one of two opposition party protests against the government this week. The main Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is organizing a nationwide protest against the government Thursday.
Seeking to pile more pressure on Singh's coalition, the BJP Tuesday slammed the government's version of the graft bill and called for its withdrawal.
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 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, Nigam Prusty, Abhijit Neogy and Annie Banerji; Editing by Matthias Williams and Jonathan Thatcher)
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