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India anti-graft activist Hazare starts new fast

Indian activist starts new hunger strike to push for tackling corruption among officials

AFP, Sunday 29 Jul 2012
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Indian activist Anna Hazare, who galvanised the country last year with his hunger strikes against corruption, began a new fast Sunday to press demands for a crackdown on official graft.

Hazare and his supporters want parliament to strengthen a pending anti-corruption bill and the creation of a special team to probe possible graft allegations against 15 ministers, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The 75-year-old former army truck driver threatened to fast until death if the demands are not met.

"I am confident that... the people of my country will not let me die. I draw my strength and confidence from you," Hazare told several thousand supporters gathered at a popular protest site in central New Delhi.

Some senior members of the Hazare campaign had already started hunger strikes at the same venue four days before.

Hazare became an unlikely national hero last August when he led countrywide protests that tapped into a rich seam of public anger at India's endemic corruption.

During a 12-day hunger strike, he was feted as a latter-day Mahatma Gandhi and mobbed at a triumphal procession through the capital New Delhi.

Singh's government, tainted by a series of graft scandals, was caught out by the outpouring of public emotion and forced to negotiate with the Hazare campaign, which it previously condemned as manipulative and undemocratic.

Although around 4,000 supporters turned out Sunday as Hazare began his latest fast, observers say the campaign has lost much of its momentum since the heady days of last summer.

The media has also been less supportive, suggesting that Hazare risks overstepping in insisting that parliament adopts his campaign's input for the new anti-corruption bill.

"Anna and his cohorts must realise that they are only a pressure group. They cannot hold parliament to ransom. Their primary job is to keep the issue of corruption in play, the Times of India said in a recent editorial.

"Using fasts to arm-twist the government is against the very spirit of democracy and amounts to political blackmail," it said.

Hazare's direct attacks on Prime Minister Singh and the ruling Congress party have also led to accusations that he and his campaign organisers were pursuing a political agenda.

But his supporters who gathered on Sunday insisted that Hazare's message was very much alive and rejected suggestions that the campaign was losing steam.

"This rally is not about numbers. Our strength should not be measured in how many people have come here. Our strength lies in our conviction and truth," said Mitul Rana, 26, a software engineer.

Housewife Kaushalya Devi, 40, brought her eight-year-old son to the protest venue.

"Hazare is fasting for us, so we thought it was our duty to come and show our support," Devi said.

"I want my son to know about him because he is the only true leader of our country. Those who claim to be the leaders are corrupt from head to toe. We must expose their real faces," she added.

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