Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday slammed a hunger strike campaign by anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare as “totally misconceived” and deliberately confrontational.
“The path he has chosen ... is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy,” Singh said in an address to parliament that was interrupted by cries of “shame” from opposition benches.
Singh said Hazare’s plans to hold an indefinite fast to push for changes to a new anti-corruption bill now before parliament was a direct and unconstitutional challenge to the government’s authority.
“The question is who drafts the law and who makes the law,” Singh said, adding that legislation was the “sole prerogative” of parliament.
Singh’s remarks followed a day and night of protests in cities across India after Hazare was arrested on Tuesday morning as he prepared to begin his “fast unto death” in a New Delhi public park.
As the protests mounted, the police ordered Hazare’s release on Tuesday evening, but the 74-year-old activist refused to leave New Delhi’s Tihar jail without a guarantee that his indefinite fast could go ahead.
Singh argued that Hazare’s arrest had been justified as he had refused to accept police restrictions that included limiting his public fast to three days.
While acknowledging Hazare’s actions might be driven by “high ideals,” Singh said his efforts to “impose” his own version of the anti-corruption bill on parliament were unacceptable and undemocratic.
Corruption has become a focus of public discontent in India, and Hazare has emerged as a prominent national figure in his campaign demanding that a new anti-graft law currently before parliament is strengthened.
Aswathi Muralidharan, a spokesman for Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement, said the activist had refused food since his arrest.
“And he will not leave Tihar jail unless he is given permission to fast indefinitely,” Muralidharan said.
With his white cap and spectacles lending him a passing resemblance to independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, Hazare has galvanized public opinion at a time when the government is reeling from a succession of high-profile graft scandals.
His arrest was shown live on television and newspapers yesterday showed an editorial consensus that the government’s action had backfired badly, with Hazare playing the role of wrongly imprisoned martyr.
“Anna holds government hostage,” ran the banner headline on the front page of the Hindustan Times.
In apparent anticipation of his arrest, Hazare had pre-recorded a message of defiance that clearly referenced his hero Gandhi.
“The second freedom struggle has begun,” he said. “Time has come, my countrymen, when there should be no place left in jails in India.”