Rahul Gandhi breaks silence on India corruption protests

Reuters , Friday 26 Aug 2011

India's Rahul Gandhi broke his silence on the face-off between the government and anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, praising Hazare in a speech aimed at improving his chances in the upcoming elections

The speech by the Gandhi family scion, who is widely seen as the prime minister-in-waiting, came as parliament prepared to debate demands made by Anna Hazare to end his 11-day-old fast, which has united millions of Indians against the government

Gandhi, 41, has spent the last few years traveling across the country to take up the cause of poor farmers, a bedrock of Congress' voter support. He has rarely spoken on national issues, focusing instead on the party's youth organization.

But the undisclosed illness of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, elevated him in August into a quartet of Congress leaders, and put him under pressure to show leadership qualities that will help the center-left party win the next 2014 general election.

While Hazare's protest has galvanized millions of India's new middle class, Gandhi aimed his speech more at India's poor.

"We are all aware that corruption is pervasive. It operates at every level. The poor may carry its greatest burden but it is an affliction that every Indian is desperate to be rid off," Gandhi, speaking in English, told a raucous parliament.

He calling for moves against corruption over land, mining and ration cards, issues which affect the poor. He also proposed reforming election funding, a root cause of political corruption.

"In the last few months, Anna has helped the people to articulate this same sentiment (against corruption). I thank him for that," Gandhi said as his sister, Priyanka, sat watching.

The 74-year-old Hazare has emerged as a lightning rod for widespread anger at a political class seen as arrogant and out of touch. Politicians from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Gandhi appeared outmanoeuvred by the extent of the protests.

The debate on Hazare's proposals to create a powerful anti-corruption agency, a condition he made to end his fast, may take place on Saturday.

More than 10,000 supporters - many singing Bollywood movie songs - gathered beside the stage where Hazare was fasting in a muddy open ground in the capital, New Delhi.

Hazare has lost 7 kg (15 lb), but his health is stable, doctors said.

After a personal appeal from Singh, Hazare said on Thursday evening that he would consider breaking his fast if parliament began discussing his anti-corruption proposals, including incorporating low-level civil servants into graft probes.

It was not clear whether he would end his fast at the start of the debate or when an anti-corruption resolution was passed.

With state polls next year ahead of a general election in 2014, Singh is under intense pressure to end a crisis that has paralyzed policy making and parliament. Already under fire for high inflation and a string of corruption scandals, the 78-year-old prime minister has seen his popularity dented even further by the Hazare saga.

The Congress party, in power for most of India's post-independence era, was taken by surprise by the strength of the protests. Its mostly silent, elderly leaders appeared to fumble as protesters mobilized support with Twitter and Facebook.

Hazare's brief arrest and release last week only sparked more protests. Police were forced on Thursday to block streets around the prime minister's residence and closed metro stations nearby, detaining hundreds of protesters and sending them home in buses, amid fears protests could escalate.

Singh, who at first took a hard line in response to Hazare's campaign, has since softened his stance, even saying on Thursday that the activist had become "the embodiment of our people's disgust and concern about tackling corruption."

However, Hazare has also come under growing criticism that he is holding an elected parliament hostage to his demands.

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