Activist Anna Hazare vowed a "revolution" in India as he began a public fast Friday amid astonishing scenes of celebratory protest that sent an intimidating message to a shell-shocked government.
"We have to bring a total change in this country," the 74-year-old told a huge crowd of chanting, flag-waving supporters at the open Delhi venue for his 15-day hunger strike to demand stronger laws against official graft.
"The whole world will see you as an example of how to bring about revolution with non-violence," the diminutive, bespectacled Hazare told the massed audience which cheered at every word.
Once seen as just an annoying thorn in the side of the establishment, Hazare has transformed into a national figure whose popularity has destabilised a government elected in 2009 with an unassailable parliamentary majority.
His campaign has tapped into a deep reservoir of discontent -- especially among India's burgeoning middle-class -- with a culture that requires bribes to secure everything from business permits to birth certificates.
After leaving the jail cell that had been his campaign headquarters since his arrest three days ago, Hazare was driven to the fasting venue in a triumphal convoy that paralysed the capital as hundreds of thousands of his adoring supporters piled onto the streets.
At times, his open-top truck was forced to stop as the crowds surged forward to throw flowered garlands up at Hazare, who was protected from driving monsoon rains by a large, camouflage-patterned parasol.
The carefully choreographed event was broadcast live across the country by English, Hindi and regional language 24-hour news networks.
Hazare's campaign has spawned mass protests in cities across India in recent days in the most significant display of popular dissent for more than three decades.
The government's response, especially the initial arrest of Hazare and thousands of his supporters, has been widely criticised as a clumsy knee-jerk reaction from an administration that has lost touch with its electorate.
India's increasingly vulnerable-looking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh denounced Hazare's campaign as a "totally misconceived" attempt to undermine parliamentary democracy, but his words have gained little public traction.
Although officially released on Tuesday evening, Hazare had refused to leave his cell until the authorities lifted restrictions on what he had originally called an indefinite "fast unto death".
In an embarrassing climbdown for Singh's Congress Party-led coalition, he was finally given permission to fast for 15 days in a large open venue normally reserved for religious festivals.
With his trademark white cap and large spectacles, and his espousal of fasting as a form of non-violent protest, the veteran activist is seen by many of his followers as a latter-day Mahatma Gandhi.
And Hazare wasn't shy about reinforcing the comparisons, stopping off en route to the fasting site at the Rajghat memorial to India's independence icon.
Like any visiting foreign head of state, he laid a garland at the plinth that marks the site of Gandhi's cremation, surrounded by hordes of cheering supporters.
"The youth of this country have woken up," he said.
"To the traitors who have looted this country, I say we will bear it no longer."
The timing could not be worse for Singh, 78, who is already under fire over a succession of multi-billion-dollar corruption scandals that have implicated top officials.
In an address to parliament on Wednesday, Singh attempted a reasoned argument against Hazare's campaign, stressing that drafting legislation was the "sole prerogative" of parliament.
But that argument has been blown away in the maelstrom of protest that has sent the compelling message that corruption, not Hazare, is the problem that needed to be addressed.
"The prime minister misses the point," the Times of India said in an editorial on Friday.
"Expectations in new, youth-driven India are higher than ever before -- on the street, in college campuses, in company boardrooms. The PM must respond, as the reformist he's known to be," the newspaper said.