Anna Hazare vows new protests over Lokpal bill

NEW DELHI Fri Dec 23, 2011 2:54am IST

1 of 4. A worker makes kites with images of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare inside a workshop in Ahmedabad December 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Amit Dave

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Anna Hazare, who stoked public anger at India's scandal-prone leaders this year, threatened on Thursday to renew protests at what he sees as watering down of the Lokpal bill, a move that could blight the government's New Year election drive.

Hazare, 74, said he will gather supporters to picket the homes of ruling party leaders Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, and aims to get arrested to highlight demands for a powerful, graft-fighting ombudsman, the Lokpal.

Hazare's anti-corruption agenda has kept Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the ropes since January, impacting the pace of economic reform in Asia's third largest economy as it battles high inflation and slowing economic growth.

"Sonia Gandhi says the bill is strong. If it is so, let her come out and debate with us in front of media," Hazare told reporters in his home village. "Convince the people of the country that it is strong. We will explain how it is not strong."

The government presented the bill to create the new ombudsman on Thursday in Parliament, but disruption by opposition parties over details slowed proceedings. Hazare's team wants the bill redrafted to make the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) an arm of the new watchdog.

The push for the bill follows a series of corruption cases in the past two years highlighted by the 2G spectrum scandal.

Former telecoms minister A. Raja and DMK MP Kanimozhi are among the 14 individuals and three companies charged in a case involving alleged rigging in the grant of licences in 2007/08.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has estimated a potential revenue loss of up to $39 billion to the government due to sale of licences at below-market prices in that period.

ECONOMIC REFORMS

Singh, who launched economic reforms in India in 1991 as finance minister, retains a clean image but is criticized for failing to stop problems on his watch.

His government has struggled to pass legislation ahead of assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in February, with even a populist measure of food subsidies questioned by state governments.

Among other key reforms delayed, Singh failed to win support for plans to allow foreign supermarkets in India late this year.

Hazare struck a rich vein of public anger and rocked the government in the summer when he launched a two week hunger strike that brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets to support him.

But for now, he plans to stop eating for three days from December 27, hoping that will prompt the government to re-draft the bill to make the watchdog much more powerful.

"We will go on agitating, we will go on making people aware, the people are the voters, the more informed they are the more informed decision they will make when they go to vote" said Kiran Bedi, a former senior police officer and close Hazare aide.

However, the media which covered the fast live on nationwide television and through strident newspaper editorials, is not as besotted with the fiesty campaigner as it was a few months back, as subsequent accusations of financial misdeeds by aides may have dented his popularity.

"It becomes more and more impossible to believe that India's Parliament should listen much longer to their maximalist, unworkable demands," the Business Standard newspaper said of Hazare and his aides.

(Reporting By Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Ed Lane)

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