The activist at the heart of unprecedented anti-corruption protests that have backed India’s government against a wall struck a deal yesterday allowing him to leave jail and stage a public fast.
Tens of thousands of Indians in cities across the country have taken to the streets in recent days in a sudden and unexpected national outpouring of anger over the blight of official graft on their daily lives.
The protests have been inspired by 74-year-old Anna Hazare, a veteran activist whose populist campaign to strengthen a new anti-corruption law has shaken India’s coalition government.
It has been particularly damaging for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been criticized for misjudging the national mood after a succession of multi-million-dollar scandals that have implicated top government officials.
Hazare was arrested on Tuesday morning as he prepared to begin a “fast unto death” in a New Delhi public park to push for amendments to the anti-graft bill recently introduced in parliament.
In the face of mounting protests, police ordered his release, but Hazare refused to leave Delhi’s Tihar jail until the authorities lifted restrictions limiting his planned fast to three days.
After lengthy negotiations a compromise was reached in the early hours of yesterday morning, allowing Hazare to fast with his supporters for 15 days at Ramlila Maidan, an open venue in Delhi used for political rallies and festivals.
“The police offered seven days, he wanted it for one month, so in the course of the negotiations we agreed on 15 days,” said Aswathi Muralidharan, a spokeswoman for Hazare’s India Against Corruption campaign.
Hazare, who has refused to eat since his arrest, had hoped to take his hunger strike public yesterday afternoon, but problems with preparing the venue postponed his departure from jail by a day.
Ramlila Maidan has a capacity of around 25,000 people.
In scenes not witnessed in the capital for decades, about 25,000 people marched through the heart of the city on Wednesday in a spontaneous display of anger at the endemic levels of official corruption in India.
Schoolchildren, office workers, retired government officers, army men and even a group of eunuchs were among those who rallied at the India Gate monument.
That and similar demonstrations in other cities piled pressure on Singh’s government, which was clearly blindsided by the scale of the protests.
In an address to parliament on Wednesday, Singh had condemned Hazare’s hunger-strike plans as a “totally misconceived” attempt to subvert parliament and blackmail legislators into amending the new anti-corruption bill.
“The question is who drafts the law and who makes the law,” Singh said, adding that legislation was the “sole prerogative” of lawmakers.
However, the argument was largely lost in the public backlash against the culture of bribery that requires backhanders for everything from business permits to birth certificates and school admissions.
India was placed 87th out of 178 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year, which orders countries according to “the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians,” from cleanest to most corrupt.
“Every person who is here is a victim of corruption,” said retired government official Srinivas Krishnan, who was among the marchers on Wednesday.