India's prime minister asked Parliament on Thursday to debate an anti-corruption activist's reform proposals and appealed to the weakening 74-year-old to end his nine-day hunger strike.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's address to lawmakers was his most direct attempt at ending the stalemate between the government and Anna Hazare over competing plans to root out the corruption infesting the country.
However, it fell well short of protesters' demands that Parliament swiftly pass their sweeping proposal to create a powerful government ombudsman with little debate or amendment.
Protest leaders did not immediately respond, but an unbowed Hazare briefly addressed a few thousands supporters at his protest site in the capital prior to Singh's speech, saying he was not yet prepared to give up: "I believe I will not die until the ombudsman bill is passed."
The government, which has tabled its own watchdog bill, has dismissed elements of Hazare's more stringent and sweeping proposal as unworkable and unconstitutional.
Singh told Parliament that it should hold a full debate on all versions of the bill — including at least two others proposed by civic groups.
"All ideas should be discussed and debated so we will have the bill which is the best possible bill that will help us deal with government corruption," he said to rare applause in a Parliament that has broken down repeatedly in chaotic protest in recent weeks.
Saying Hazare's message had been heard, the usually staid Singh made an emotional appeal to him to call off his hunger strike.
"He has made his point. It has been registered with us. I respect his idealism. I respect him as an individual. He has become the embodiment of our people's disgust and concern about tackling corruption. I applaud you, I salute you, and his life is much too precious. And therefore I would urge Sri Anna Hazare to end his fast," Singh said.
In an unusual show of unity, the opposition endorsed Singh's appeal.
"This house appeals to Anna Hazare that his life is precious, so please end your fast," said Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in the lower house of Parliament.
Hazare's fast has struck a chord with Indians horrified at the nation's endemic corruption and the seemingly never-ending scandals said to have cost the treasury billions of dollars. On Wednesday, police charged four lawmakers for their alleged role in buying and selling votes in Parliament.
The protest has left Singh's government flailing for more than a week, as Hazare's aides harnessed Twitter, Facebook and the nation's breathless, 24-hour news channels to rally support for their cause.
But the government appeared to gain momentum in recent days, as other activists, including novelist Arundhati Roy, began to criticize Hazare's protest as misguided and anti-democratic.
On Wednesday, the government held a meeting of all parliamentary parties, which agreed only to give the protesters' draft "due consideration," not the guaranteed passage that Hazare had sought. Both sides dug in their heels and talks broke down Wednesday night.
Singh's address in Parliament sent a signal that despite their strong differences, the lawmakers were united in their belief that the legislature not be dictated to by the protesters.
"Parliament must have a chance to give its views on their bill," he said.
And Singh — who has been heavily criticized for presiding over a scandal-wracked Cabinet — spoke with unusual emotion, saying he was sickened by attacks on his personal integrity.
"When wild charges are levied against me, it hurts," he said. He admitted he may have made mistakes in his seven years as prime minister, but insisted he maintained his personal integrity.
"To err is human, but to accuse me of evil intentions, of conniving with corruption is a charge I firmly refute," he said.
Meanwhile, businesses and wholesale markets shut down across the capital as the Delhi Traders Association called a strike in support of Hazare's fast.
At the protest site, crowds that numbered in the tens of thousands over the weekend had dwindled to just a few thousand.
Protest organizers had been raising concerns that authorities might detain Hazare and force feed him. Hazare asked his supporters to block the exits if police tried to take him away.