Indian govt under pressure over activist's anti-graft fast

Thu Apr 7, 2011 4:09pm IST

* Anti-corruption activist to fast until death

* Hundreds of thousands join protest

By Henry Foy

NEW DELHI, April 7 (Reuters) - India's government held talks with supporters of a leading social activist on a new anti-graft law on Thursday, hoping to persuade him to end a fast until death that has caught the imagination of thousands of citizens fed up with scandals.

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's protests that helped end British colonial rule, the septuagenarian Anna Hazare launched his campaign in the centre of New Delhi's business district this week, demanding that the proposed Ombudsman Bill be strengthened to make it an effective tool against rampant corruption.

Hazare and a growing band of activists have launched a multi-city movement to force changes in the 40-year-old draft legislation to give the ombudsman police-like powers to prosecute politicians and bureaucrats including judges and members of the prime minister's office.

"Apart from slight weakness, I am fine. I've lost a little weight, but I can still carry on for at least seven more days. I'll never leave the path of truth," Hazare said on Thursday on the third day of his fast.

Protesters have spread their message on Twitter, Facebook and phone text messages, and organisers hope a quarter of a million people will have signed up to a petition on strengthening the provisions of the bill by Thursday.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition faces a raft of graft scandals, including an alleged telecoms scam that may have cost the country up to $39 billion, that have spooked investors and could dent the government's chances in important state elections.

The government says it has opened "a channel of communication" with Hazare on demands for activists to sit on a committee that will oversee the drafting of the legislation.

In a sign of the protest's clout, pressure from Hazare prompted a key Congress party ally, farm minister Sharad Pawar, to step down from the group of ministers tasked with drawing up the anti-corruption bill late on Wednesday.

Singh promised the bill would be passed after his party's landslide 2004 election victory. Hazare and his supporters have drafted their own alternative version of the legislation, calling for the activist to chair the steering committee

Bollywood stars have lent their support to Hazare, who has spent three days without food on a stage in India's capital city before scores of live TV cameras. Hundreds of others in cities across the country have held fasts of their own in a show of support.

The campaign comes days after police on Saturday charged former telecoms minister Andimuthu Raja with abuse of office as part of an investigation into the telecom licence scandal, potentially India's largest ever corruption case. [ID:nL4E7F201J] (Editing by Matthias Williams and Sanjeev Miglani)

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