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Indian activist hails 'victory' after release from prison

Anna Hazare is met by supporters after starting a hunger strike in a standoff with India's government. He wants Parliament to pass a bill to create a powerful ombudsman to crack down on corruption.

August 20, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Activist Anna Hazare sits in front of a portrait of Mohandas Gandhi at the Ramlila Ground in New Delhi, where he continued his anti-corruption hunger strike after his release from prison.
Activist Anna Hazare sits in front of a portrait of Mohandas Gandhi at the… (Saurabh Das, Associated…)

Reporting from New Delhi — A popular anti-corruption activist emerged from an Indian prison Friday, three nights after and seven pounds lighter than he entered, to a triumphant welcome from supporters after protracted negotiations with the government over the terms of his hunger strike.

Doctors said septuagenarian Anna Hazare's weight loss, sustained from the fast he started behind bars, didn't represent a health risk, even as Hazare declared that the support of the Indian people had given him "new energy."

"Victory to mother India," he added, waving an Indian flag. "The fight is far from over; it has just begun."

Analysts said they expected the standoff between Hazare's camp and the government would now enter a less dramatic stage as each side courts public opinion while trying to outlast the other.

The drama began Tuesday morning when Hazare was arrested on his way to a New Delhi park where he planned to start his protest fast. Granted bail that evening after crowds across India protested, he refused to leave Tihar prison until a deal was struck.

Under the terms of that deal, authorities will let him fast for up to two weeks in a larger venue, the Ramlila Ground, with room for 25,000 supporters, rather than the three days and 5,000-attendee limit on which they had insisted.

As the unlikely hero threaded his way onto an open truck in the rain, his aides cautioned supporters against becoming violent or blocking traffic. Thousands, however, followed his vehicle in cars and motorcycles on its three-hour journey, chanting and singing. Upon reaching Ramlila, Hazare sat cross-legged before a large picture of Mohandas Gandhi, his idol.

Hazare has tapped a groundswell of frustration over rampant corruption in India's fast-growing economy, and his showdown with authorities has left the ruling Congress Party looking weak and reactive. The party's popularity has declined in recent months over several scandals involving telecommunications, defense and sports management and allegedly tens of billions of dollars.

Hazare is trying to pressure Parliament to pass his version of a bill that would create an anti-graft ombudsman, or lokpal, with broad powers. The current version of the measure, reflecting the government's preference, makes the post advisory without authority over the prime minister's office or senior judges.

A lot now hinges on how long Hazare's fast continues and what sort of middle ground can be found, analysts said. Hazare told reporters Friday that he was willing to negotiate with the government but would never compromise on his core principles.

One scenario might see Hazare give up his hunger strike on condition that a parallel bill is introduced that incorporates Hazare's demands, analysts said, leading to a melding of the two.

A second, higher-stakes path might see Hazare adopt an uncompromising stance that, as his health deteriorates, prompts the government to remove him to a hospital where he would be force-fed intravenously.

"That would arouse a lot of public protest," said Balveer Arora, a political science professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "The pitch definitely goes up a couple of notches."

So far, the crowds have been peaceful, even festive, with people dancing, banging drums and showing support in unusual ways, including thousands of lunch deliverymen who mounted a one-day strike in Mumbai on Friday to show solidarity with Hazare's hunger pangs.

Both sides will be thinking about the clock. Hazare has calculated that a longer fast ratchets up pressure on the government. The government hopes the public will lose interest, undercutting Hazare's momentum. Even then, flagging interest could quickly revive if his health fails.

Hazare originally pledged a "fast unto death," but on Thursday aides said he would avoid eating only so long as his health wasn't jeopardized.

Most analysts say the government has fumbled badly, underestimating the negative publicity created by police dragging away an unbending elderly activist dressed like Gandhi.

But it can regroup, some said. As the standoff has dragged on, more people have questioned Hazare's tactics and intent, the unchecked power his proposed ombudsman could have and what some see as his bid to undermine democracy by taking his fight to the streets.

"The government has badly mishandled this," said Ram Puniyani, a former professor and conflict resolution activist. "But now it should wake up, build on these opinions, and come back honestly and sincerely. Everyone's against corruption. But it can't be rooted out just with the lokpal."

That would take leadership, however, from a government that has seemed increasingly directionless in recent months. "It's a problem of drift," said Arora, the political scientist. "They've been responding rather than having a well-thought-out strategy."

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