NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Swami Ramdev, India's most popular and powerful yoga guru, rejected an appeal by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday to call off a hunger strike against corruption, the second major challenge to a government losing its authority due to rampant graft.
The charismatic guru, who dons a saffron cloth thrown over his bare torso, runs a $40 million-a-year global yoga and health empire and has millions of followers: some 30 million viewers tune into his daily yoga TV show.
These followers are expected to rally behind him as he begins on Saturday a "fast-to-the-death" in Delhi until the government agrees to pass a tough anti-corruption "Jan Lokpal" bill and set up a task force for repatriating illegal funds held in foreign bank accounts by Indians.
"There will be over 1 crore (10 million) people who will fast," Ramdev told reporters at Delhi's airport after holding talks with four government ministers, rushed there by the prime minister to urge him to call off his fast.
"We want to get rid of corruption and injustices happening in institutions and we want to make things fair (in India)."
Singh has struggled to shake off a series of corruption scandals that have embroiled senior officials, including a $39 billion telecoms spectrum scam, the biggest in India's history.
There is widespread public anger over the graft scams, which have also hurt foreign investment and helped delay a series of reforms aimed at opening up Asia's third-largest economy.
Ramdev's fast would be the second by a prominent public figure to force the government to ratify the anti-graft bill that gives an independent ombudsman police-like powers to prosecute ministers, bureaucrats and judges.
In April, veteran activist Anna Hazare, who is in his 70s, went on a hunger strike over the bill, triggering anti-graft protests by thousands of people across the country.
He ended it five days later, after the government agreed to allow activists to take part in drafting it, and to then introduce it in parliament's next session, due to start in July.
While Hazare is widely respected -- his campaign has drawn comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi's protests and hunger strikes that helped end British colonial rule --, Ramdev wields significantly more clout and has vowed to launch a political party for the 2014 national elections to challenge Singh's Congress.
Ramdev, who does not disclose his age, is also very wealthy and owns a Scottish island. He also claims to cure cancer.
OUT OF TOUCH GOVERNMENT
The yoga guru plans to hold his fast in a 250,000 square foot (23,225 square metre) tent in the capital. Singh sent his trouble-shooter and political veteran Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and three other ministers to the airport to welcome Ramdev, who arrived on a private jet, VIP-style.
The prime minister, concerned the guru will galvanize public opinion against the government, hopes Ramdev will be convinced to drop his hunger strike.
"This is not a personal issue. We all agree with Ramdev that corruption is a big problem and that we are committed to tackling it with all the resources at our disposal," Singh told reporters late on Tuesday.
The government is resisting giving the Lokpal bill the teeth to probe corruption charges against the prime minister, members of parliament, top judges and other investigative agencies, saying this would harm the functioning of the state.
Many Indians say this highlights their government's unwillingness to tackle corruption.
"In expressing its demands, the government has displayed how terribly out of touch it is with the nation," the influential Times of India said in an editorial on Wednesday.
Politicians fear that public outrage over the corruption scandals, made all the harder to stomach as millions of Indian struggle with rising food prices, may spark popular protests, a significant challenge to the government.
India has largely remained unaffected by the violent protests that have rocked some emerging economies in the Middle East and North Africa, which were partially fuelled by high prices and corruption.
India ranked 78th on Transparency International's latest corruption index, a worse ranking than Asian rival China. Graft has long been a part of daily life, but the recent scandals -- that have seen ministers jailed and business heavyweights questioned by investigative agencies -- are unprecedented.
(Additional reporting by Henry Foy in NEW DELHI; Editing by Miral Fahmy)
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