NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s Rahul Gandhi broke his silence on the face-off between the government and a hunger-striking anti-corruption campaigner Friday, praising the activist in a speech aimed at flexing his muscle as the emerging leader of the ruling Congress party.
The speech by the Gandhi family scion, who is widely seen as the prime minister-in-waiting, came as parliament will likely debate Saturday demands made by Anna Hazare to end his 11-day-old fast, which has united millions of Indians against the government.
Gandhi, 41, has spent the last few years traveling across the country to take up the cause of poor farmers, a bedrock of Congress’ voter support. He has rarely spoken on national issues, focusing instead on the party’s youth organization.
But the undisclosed illness of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, elevated him in August into a quartet of Congress leaders, and put him under pressure to show leadership qualities that will help the center-left party win the next 2014 general election.
While Hazare’s protest has galvanized India’s growing urban middle class, Gandhi aimed his speech more at India’s poor.
“We are all aware that corruption is pervasive. It operates at every level. The poor may carry its greatest burden but it is an affliction that every Indian is desperate to be rid off,” Gandhi, speaking in English, told a raucous parliament.
While praising 74-year-old Hazare, he also criticized the movement for setting “a dangerous precedent for a democracy” by trying to dictate their demands to parliament.
He called for regulation against corruption over land, mining and ration cards, issues which affect the poor. He also proposed reforming election funding, a root cause of political corruption
“In the last few months, Anna has helped the people to articulate this same sentiment (against corruption). I thank him for that,” Gandhi said as his sister, Priyanka, sat watching.
Hazare has emerged as a lightening rod for widespread anger at a political class seen as arrogant and out of touch. Politicians from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Gandhi appeared outmaneuvered by the extent of the protests.
The debate on Hazare’s proposals to create a powerful anti-corruption agency, a condition he made to end his fast, will likely take place Saturday after bickering between the opposition and the government delayed the session.
More than 13,000 supporters -- many singing Bollywood movie songs -- gathered beside the stage where Hazare was fasting in a muddy open ground in the capital, New Delhi.
Hazare, an austere campaigner who is often compared to India’s independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, has lost 7 kg (15 lb), but his health is stable, doctors said.
Dozens of activists briefly sneaked past police barricades in the diplomatic quarter to reach Rahul Gandhi’s residence, demanding adoption of the anti-graft legislation.
After a personal appeal from Singh, Hazare said Thursday evening that he would consider breaking his fast if parliament began discussing his anti-corruption proposals, including incorporating low-level civil servants into graft probes.
It was not clear whether he would end his fast at the start of the debate or when an anti-corruption resolution was passed.
With state polls next year ahead of a general election in 2014, Singh is under intense pressure to end a crisis that has paralyzed policy making and parliament. Already under fire for high inflation and a string of corruption scandals, the 78-year-old prime minister has seen his popularity dented even further by the Hazare saga.
The Congress party, in power for most of India’s post-independence era, was taken by surprise by the strength of the protests. Its mostly silent, elderly leaders appeared to fumble as protesters mobilized support with Twitter and Facebook.
Hazare’s brief arrest and release last week only sparked more protests. Police were forced Thursday to block streets around the prime minister’s residence and closed metro stations nearby, detaining hundreds of protesters and sending them home in buses, amid fears protests could escalate.
Singh, who at first took a hard line in response to Hazare’s campaign, has since softened his stance, even saying Thursday that the activist had become “the embodiment of our people’s disgust and concern about tackling corruption.”
However, Hazare has also came under growing criticism that he is holding an elected parliament hostage to his demands.
Editing by Paul de Bendern and Sanjeev Miglani