NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s leading anti-corruption campaigner edged closer Thursday to a deal to end his 10-day public fast after Prime Minister Manmohan’s Singh government agreed to discuss his anti-graft proposals.
The campaign by 74-year-old Anna Hazare has sparked the biggest protests in decades, uniting millions of Indians, including its growing middle class, against a Congress Party-led government beset by corruption scandals in its second term.
The self-styled Gandhian activist said he would break his hunger strike if parliament began discussing his tough anti-corruption proposals, including incorporating low level civil servants into graft probes.
“If there is unanimity among all parties on these conditions then I will think about ending my fast, but not my protest,” Hazare told thousands of his supporters.
A top government source with direct knowledge of the matter said Singh’s government had agreed to discuss the proposals.
“Both the houses of parliament will discuss all versions of the Lokpal bill, including Team Anna‘s,” the source, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
With key state elections due next year in the run-up to a general election in 2014, Singh is under pressure to end a crisis that has paralysed policy making and parliament and added to his unpopularity amid high inflation and a run of corruption scandals.
Political parties have united to ask Hazare to end the 10-day public fast that has drawn tens of thousands of supporters to a muddy expanse of open ground in the capital, New Delhi, with increasing concerns about his health.
“He has become the embodiment of our people’s disgust and concern about tackling corruption,” Singh told parliament. “I applaud him, I salute him. His life is much too precious and therefore, I would like to urge Anna Hazare to end this fast.”
Hazare had so far appeared steadfast in his hunger strike, despite growing criticism that he is holding an elected parliament hostage to his demands. There was some confusion to whether Hazare would end the fast at the start of the debate or by the passing of an anti-corruption bill.
Police blocked streets around the prime minister’s residence and closed metro stations nearby, detaining protesters and sending them home in buses, amid fears protests could escalate as talks appeared to be on the wire.
Singh proposed Thursday that parliament debate Hazare’s bill as well as the government bill and a third piece of legislation on corruption to help forge a cross-party consensus.
Hazare was well enough to address crowds Thursday. He has lost nearly 7 kg (15 lbs) since the start of his fast.
“I am sure I will not die until we get the Jan Lokpal (anti-corruption) bill ... I will keep fighting,” he said.
Hazare’s deteriorating health could force the government to decide to force-feed him, a move that would risk sparking further protests against a fumbling government of elderly ministers widely seen as out of touch.
Many of India’s fast-growing urban middle class have joined forces with Hazare to protest against a system that requires bribes for everything from driver’s licences to birth certificates and has allowed politicians and businessmen to cream off millions of dollars through shady deals.
Several scandals linked to the government, including a telecoms bribery scam that may have cost the state up to $39 billion in lost revenues, led to Hazare’s latest protest.
Additional reporting by Annie Banerji and Nigam Prusty in New Delhi; Editing by Paul de Bendern, Sanjeev Miglani and Jackie Frank