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Wed 17 Aug 2011 02:32 PM

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Indian anti-graft activist vows to fast to the death

Support swells for self-styled activist campaigning against corruption

Indian anti-graft activist vows to fast to the death
The crackdown on Hazare has sparked protests in cities across India (AFP/Getty Images)

Protests swelled across India on Wednesday in support of a
self-styled Gandhian anti-corruption campaigner fasting to the death in jail,
with Prime Minister Manmohan's Singh's beleaguered government apparently unable
to end the standoff.

An uncompromising Singh, 78, who is widely criticised as out
of touch, dismissed the fast by Anna Hazare demanding tougher laws as
"totally misconceived," sparking outrage as lawmakers cried
"shame."

"It is a wake-up call for all of us unless we put our
house in order. The people of this country are becoming restless," said
Arun Jaitley, a leader of the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata
Party.

The squat and slight 74-year-old Hazare fasted on Wednesday
as thousands of his followers gathered outside the jail, the latest development
in a crisis that saw him arrested on Tuesday and then refuse to leave jail
after the government ordered his release.

Hazare, who has struck a nerve with millions of Indians by
demanding tougher laws against rampant corruption in India, insists he wants
the right to return to a city park where he had originally planned to publicly
fast, before he leaves jail.

The arrest and sudden about-turn to release him appeared to
confirm a widespread feeling Singh's government is cornered, clumsy and too
riddled with corruption scandals to govern Asia's third-largest economy
effectively.

"Corrupt, repressive and stupid," was the verdict
of The Hindu newspaper. "Anna has the government fumbling," was the
headline of the Mail Today.

Protests spread in support of Hazare, a long-time social
activist who dresses in a trademark white kurta, white cap and spectacles in
the style of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

In northeast Assam state, thousands of farmers, students and
lawyers marched. In the financial capital of Mumbai, 500 people carrying the
Indian flag and wearing Gandhi caps chanted "I am Anna."

"I was forced to pay a bribe while getting my passport
approved and I felt helpless," said student Rahul Acharya, 21. "This
is the time all youngsters should join the movement so that the future would be
corruption-free."

In the IT hub of Hyderabad, lawyers boycotted courts,
students skipped class and hundreds took to the streets.

Across southern Andhra Pradesh state, a Congress party
stronghold, thousands went on snap fasts, staged sit-ins, blocked roads and
formed human chains.

Demonstrations are part of daily life in the towns and
cities of India, a country of 1.2 billion people made up of a myriad of castes,
religions and classes. But spontaneous and widespread protests are rare, and
the scale of this week's outpouring of public fury has taken the government by
surprise.

A stone-faced Singh was uncompromising, but offered little
vision in a speech to parliament as opposition lawmakers tried to shout him
down.

"I acknowledge that Anna Hazare may be inspired by high
ideals," a stern-looking Singh said. "However, the path that he has
chosen to impose a draft of the bill on parliament is totally misconceived and
fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy.

"We must not create an environment in which our
economic progress is hijacked by internal dissention."

Hazare became the unlikely thorn in the side of the
Congress-led coalition when he went on hunger strike in April. He called off
that fast after the government promised to introduce a bill creating a special
ombudsman to bring crooked politicians, bureaucrats and judges to book.

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The legislation was presented in early August, but activists
slammed the draft version as toothless because the prime minister and judges
were exempt from probes.

Critics say Singh's government of mainly elderly politicians
has no idea how to react to spontaneous protests, highlighting a generation gap
as social networks like Twitter and Facebook galvanize thousands - including
many of India's growing urban middle class, from Supreme Court lawyers to
students.

"The leadership is hiding behind men in uniform,"
Jaitley said.

More protests were planned across India. There were calls
for civil servants to take leave and rickshaw drivers to strike and a large
protest is expected in Delhi later on Wednesday.

The Congress party held an emergency meeting to discuss the
crisis. But the absence of party chief Sonia Gandhi due to an undisclosed
illness appeared to have further weakened the government decision-making.

Gandhi left control of the party in the hands of a quartet,
including her 41-year-old son, Rahul, widely seen as a prime minister in
waiting.

The arrest played into Hazare's hands. Many parties were
sceptical about the fast and there has been criticism the activist was holding
Indian parliamentary democracy hostage. But doubts about the protest were
overshadowed by the arrest.

A weak political opposition means that the government should
still survive the crisis, but it could further dim the prospect for economic
reforms that have already been held back by policy paralysis and a raft of
corruption scandals.

The arrests shocked many in a country with strong memories
of Gandhi's independence battles against colonial rule with fasts and
non-violent protests.

Opposition figures likened the crackdown to the 1975
"Emergency" when then-prime minister Indira Gandhi arrested thousands
of opposition members to stay in power.

The question for many is whether Hazare's movement will grow
in the fast-urbanising nation whose increasingly assertive middle class is fed
up with constant bribes, poor services and unaccountable leaders.

The scandals, including a telecoms bribery scam that may
have cost the government $39bn, have not only stymied Singh's reform agenda,
they have dented investor confidence and distracted parliament just as the $1.6
trillion economy is being hit by inflation and higher interest rates.

Hazare rose to fame for lifting his village in the western
state of Maharashtra out of grinding poverty. His social activism has forced
out senior government officials and helped create a right-to-information act
for citizens.