Indian PM offers concessions to fasting activist

AFP , Tuesday 23 Aug 2011

With the health of Indian activist Anna Hazare deteriorating, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes a few concessions that are yet disapproved by Hazare

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered the first concessions Tuesday in his high-stakes standoff with activist Anna Hazare, urging him to end an anti-graft fast that has triggered huge protests.

In a letter to the 74-year-old campaigner whose hunger strike has boxed Singh's government into a tight political corner, the prime minister proposed a series of compromises in their dispute over a new anti-corruption law.

Hazare insists the government bill is toothless, and says he will continue his fast -- now in its eighth day -- unless parliament adopts and passes his own, more aggressive, version by August 30.

In his letter, Singh stressed that parliament's "supremacy" as the sole elected body with the mandate to determine legislation had to be respected.

Nevertheless, "in view of my deep and abiding concern for your health," Singh said he was willing to request that the speaker of parliament refer Hazare's version of the bill to the committee that is reviewing the government's draft.

He also said the committee would be asked to fast-track its deliberations.

"I do hope that you will consider my suggestions and end your fast to regain full health and vitality," Singh said.

The concessions marked a significant shift by the prime minister, who last week had condemned Hazare's demands as "totally misconceived" and a threat to India's parliamentary democracy.

Singh's government, which has been hit by a succession of multi-billion-dollar corruption scandals, was blindsided by the outpouring of national support for Hazare's campaign.

In the biggest protests for three decades, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of cities across the country, calling for an end to the culture of bribery and backhanders that blights their daily lives.

And tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters have gathered every day at the open-air venue in central Delhi where Hazare is staging his public fast.

Singh's written appeal came as his government instigated its first direct talks with Hazare's aides in a bid to find a way out of the impasse.

Law Minister Salman Khurshid met briefly with Arvind Kejriwal, a senior member of Hazare's campaign, for what both described as preliminary talks aimed at sounding out the other's positions.

"There has been no progress on the contentious issues. We just had general discussions," Kejriwal told reporters.

There was no immediate response to Singh's letter from Hazare, whose aides said they were increasingly concerned about the aged activist's health.

"Every hour is crucial now," said close aide Kiran Bedi. "We are worried that his health might suffer."

Hazare, whose vital signs are constantly monitored by a large team of doctors, has lost 5.6 kilograms (12.3 pounds).

However, he was in a feisty and defiant mood when he spoke to cheering supporters earlier in the day.

"It would be my good fortune to die for the country," he said. "My demands will not change. You can cut off my head but not force me to bow down."

In his letter, Singh struck a pointedly conciliatory tone, saying his government shared Hazare's desire for the strongest possible anti-corruption laws.

"At worst, our paths and methodologies may differ, though I do believe that even those differences have been exaggerated," he said.

"I have no hesitation in saying that we need your views and actions in the service of the nation, from a robust physical condition and not in the context of frail or failing health," he added.

Singh has called an all-party meeting on the crisis for Wednesday but faces an uphill struggle in building a consensus with opposition parties who have accused him of misjudging and mishandling Hazare's populist campaign. 

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