Indian official says protest fast is bad precedent

By RAVI NESSMAN | August 26, 2011 | 4:50 AM EDT

Anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, center seated, is assisted by medical team head Naresh Trehan during a medical investigation during his fast at the Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seized control of a national anti-corruption debate Thursday, calling on Parliament to discuss protesters' reform proposals and appealing to a weakening 74-year-old activist to end his hunger strike. (AP Photo/Gurinder Osan)

NEW DELHI (AP) — The scion of India's most powerful political family praised a reform activist for galvanizing anger against corruption but said Friday that using a hunger strike to force lawmakers to adopt an anti-corruption bill set "a dangerous precedent for a democracy."

The comments by top ruling party lawmaker Rahul Gandhi were his first foray into the government's standoff with Anna Hazare since the 74-year-old activist began a fast 10 days ago that has brought tens of thousands of supporters fed up with endemic corruption into the streets.

Gandhi's speech, coming a day after an emotional appeal by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for Hazare to end his hunger strike, signaled a government attempt to take control of the corruption debate after nearly a week of flailing on the issue.

Hazare had demanded Parliament pass his stringent version of a bill creating a government watchdog but appeared to slightly soften his stance Thursday after Singh offered to have lawmakers debate several proposed drafts of the bill, including his.

Hazare's aides said that if lawmakers passed a resolution backing some of his demands — pledging greater transparency and including low-level bureaucrats and state officials under the watchdog's oversight — he would consider ending his fast.

Hazare, who has lost 15.5 pounds (7 kilograms) so far, said he would continue protesting even if he ended his fast, to push other demands, including giving the watchdog power to investigate the prime minister and judges.

On Friday, Parliament officials were trying to work out procedures for introducing the competing bills.

Hazare's fast has highlighted Indians' anger at the rot in their political system, which extends from local police demands for bribes to investigate cases to national scandals that have cost the treasury billions of dollars.

The government had appeared rudderless through much of the fast as protest leaders used Twitter and India's 24-hour news channels to press their case. Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi, Rahul's mother, was recuperating abroad from surgery for an undisclosed ailment; Singh, seen as more of a technocrat than an inspiring leader, was slow to respond; and Rahul Gandhi himself was nowhere to be found.

On Friday, Gandhi stood up before Parliament to thank Hazare for articulating Indians' anger at corruption. But he lashed the hunger strike as a "tactical incursion" into government functioning aimed at undoing the checks and balances of Parliament. He said that "sets a dangerous precedent for a democracy."

"Today the proposed law is against corruption. Tomorrow the target may be something less universally heralded. It may attack the plurality of our society and democracy," he said.

Gandhi, who has been heralded as a possible future prime minister of India, also said Hazare's protest gave the false impression that the creation of a strong watchdog would rid the nation of graft.

"There are no simple solutions to eradicate corruption," he said, proposing a raft of new policies, including government funding of elections and parties, transparency in government contracts, tax reform and better regulation of the land and mining sectors. "To eradicate corruption demands a far deeper engagement and sustained commitment from each one of us."

Meanwhile, some of Hazare's allies began raising concerns about his unwillingness to bend.

Swami Agnivesh, a respected peace activist, divorced himself from the protest, saying he was perplexed why Hazare was still fasting after Singh agreed Thursday to debate his proposal and the opposition concurred.

"That was a great moment in our history, where the representatives of our nation got up to salute (Hazare) and appeal to him to give up his fast. To carry on, carry on with his fast, even after that is not something I am able to understand at all," he told The Associated Press. "To dictate to Parliament that you pass the resolution is something that goes against the democratic spirit of our country and is something which I cannot approve of."

The tone of India's media coverage, which had been strongly supportive of Hazare, also appeared to be shifting following Singh's speech Thursday.

"We believe Anna should acknowledge the PM's gesture and call off his fast," The Times of India wrote in a front-page editorial.

Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of the IBN 18 television news network, called Hazare a hero, but also said he needed to abandon the hunger strike.

"You are now an icon for millions. Please don't allow a personality cult to shadow your ultimate gift of common sense," he wrote in the Hindustan Times.

But Medha Patkar, one of the protest leaders, said the government had not yet given them the concrete victory they wanted.

"It is not enough to have made a point," she said. "What is needed is a result."


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