NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The government suffered a fresh blow on Thursday in containing growing anger over corruption from million of voters as leading civil activist Anna Hazare joined forces with influential yoga guru Swami Ramdev in a “fast-until-death” against graft.
The saffron-robed Ramdev, India’s most famous yoga guru, has pledged a hunger strike from Saturday to protest against corruption in Asia’s third-largest economy and called on his legions of followers to join him.
Anna Hazare, whose highly-publicised fast in April rang a chord with millions of Indians and forced the government to make legislative concessions on the anti-corruption “Jan Lokpal” bill, pledged his support on Thursday for Ramdev’s strike.
Investors worry the latest troubles will again force the government to pay less attention to reform bills, such as making it easier for industry to acquire land, postponed due to opposition protests over graft causing parliamentary deadlock.
“The government has tried to cheat us,” Hazare, whose hunger strike demanding the anti-corruption law triggered protests by thousands of people across India, told reporters.
“I will support Baba Ramdev so that the government does not do what it did when we were fighting. We will fight together against corruption.”
Such is Ramdev’s popularity that some of India’s most powerful government ministers turned up at Delhi airport to greet him on Wednesday and persuade him to call off the strike. They failed and were forced to carry out a second day of talks.
Ramdev, who turned an ancient spiritual tradition into a mass healing movement, runs a $40 million-a-year global yoga and health empire, owns a Scottish island and says he can cure cancer.
Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally appealed to Ramdev, whose daily TV show attracts 30 million viewers in a country where the healing powers of yoga are hugely popular, to call off the protest.
Ramdev will begin his fast on Saturday in New Delhi and has predicted that 10 million people will join his protest until the government agrees to pass an anti-corruption law and set up a task force for repatriating illegal funds held in foreign bank accounts by Indians.
Singh’s party has struggled to shake off a slew of corruption scandals, including the telecoms kickback scam that may have cost the government $39 billion, that have sparked public anger, hurt foreign investment and stymied economic reforms.
Senior ruling Congress party officials have questioned his links with the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organisation of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
But Ramdev has said his protest is apolitical, and some commentators said this kind of movement would gain little traction if it was not for widespread grassroots anger.
“You will never have this kind of mass movement for the wrong reasons,” anti-corruption activist and former police officer Kiran Bedi told CNN-IBN.
“One out of two Indians, according to surveys, is either a victim of corruption or perpetrator of corruption.”
In a sign the controversy had sparked divisions within the government, Congress party general secretary Digvijaya Singh criticised the move to send ministers to meet Ramdev because of his links to the RSS.
Whatever his links, the protest could eat into the government’s support.
“Ramdev is quite a maverick, but many people will try to capitalise on his following ...the principal opposition will always indirectly benefit,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a former magazine editor.
Hazare, who is in his 70s, ended his fast after five days when the government agreed to finalise a draft of the “Jan Lokpal” bill giving an independent ombudsman police-like powers to prosecute ministers, bureaucrats and judges.
Over 500 volunteers were busy sewing huge fabric drapes, erecting towers and setting up huge outdoor kitchens on Thursday at the site of a 250,000 sq ft (23,000 sq m) tent in the capital where Ramdev’s fast will take place.
“India has potential but we are lost among corruption. Our aim is to increase the country’s moral value,” said Shailesh Nage, a protest organiser.
Politicians fear that outrage over the corruption scandals, made all the harder to stomach by rising food and fuel prices, may turn into a national popular movement against the establishment.
India has largely remained unaffected by the violent protests that have rocked emerging economies in the Middle East and North Africa, fuelled in part by high prices and corruption.
India ranked 78th on Transparency International’s latest corruption index, below China. Graft has long been a part of daily life, but the scandals - that have seen ministers jailed and business heavyweights questioned - are unprecedented.
Additional reporting by Annie Banerji and Paul de Bendern; Editing by Alistair Scrutton