NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Police fired water cannons and tear gas at opposition party activists on the streets of the capital on Tuesday, as thousands of anti-government protesters rallied against the ruling Congress party over corruption scandals.
Youth demonstrators from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) marched on parliament demanding the resignation of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit over corruption, the latest move to pressure the beleaguered government to act on graft.
A series of high-profile scandals has eroded trust and stymied policymaking in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration in recent months.
The opposition also staged a protest inside parliament forcing its closure at a time when it is slated to introduce reform legislation including one on easier land acquisitions.
The demonstrators were seeking the resignation of Dikshit after a state auditor slammed costly tenders given to questionable contractors for the 2010 Commonwealth Games on her authority.
Dikshit has denied any wrongdoing.
Police wielding batons charged at the protesters after they jumped over barricades and threw stones at police, according to a Reuters witness. A Delhi police official told a local TV channel that 20-25 people had been injured in the clashes.
“Please protest in a peaceful manner,” Anurag Thakur, the leader of the BJP’s youth wing, appealed to the protesters. “We don’t want our youth to resort to such violent measures.”
The protests came on the same day as a survey published in The Hindu newspaper said a majority of Indians see their civil servants and lawmakers as the most corrupt groups in the country, comfortably beating business leaders.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents saw Singh’s government as “very corrupt” or “somewhat corrupt”, while many said his coalition’s handling of anti-graft movements was “insincere”, according to the poll conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
While 43 percent ranked politicians as the most corrupt, only 3 percent saw business people as the most corrupt, despite the fact that executives have been arrested or questioned by police in connection with graft scandals.
“A spate of corruption scandals in high places, accentuated by high-profile anti-corruption movements, have taken a toll on the government’s image, especially among the more educated and articulate sections,” the Hindu said.
Petty corruption is a fact of life for hundreds of millions of Indians who need to pay bribes for anything from a passport to a gas connection, but a string of billion-dollar scandals has sparked widespread anger against the government.
The Congress party has come under fire for what activists say is a cynical response to mass anti-graft movements that sprouted this year. The government says the protests were undemocratic and should not be allowed to dictate policy.
A mass fast led by popular yoga teacher Swami Ramdev was broken up by what many saw as a heavy-handed police raid in June. Activists have also criticised the government for what they see as watering down an anti-corruption bill, which is due to be introduced into parliament in this session.
The think-tank CSDS interviewed 20,268 people, the majority of them in rural India for the survey on corruption.
The survey suggested that information on the scandals was slow to trickle down from New Delhi. Only 27 percent had even heard of Andimuthu Raja, perhaps the most famous casualty of the scandals, a former telecoms minister facing trial.
In a separate question, 25 percent of all respondents saw a police station as the most corrupt office, more than courts, hospitals or village councils.
The corruption saga has dented investor confidence and smothered reforms such as on land acquisition that could help maintain the momentum of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, which has showed signs of slowdown.
Writing by Matthias Williams; additional reporting by Matthias Williams, Nigam Prusty and Annie Banerji; editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sanjeev Miglani