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In India, anti-graft activist declares victory

Anna Hazare, who has galvanized public anger over official corruption, ends his hunger strike after parliament agrees to take action.

August 28, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Anna Hazare sits by an oversized portrait of his idol, Mohandas Gandhi. The anti-corruption activist ended a hunger strike Saturday.
Anna Hazare sits by an oversized portrait of his idol, Mohandas Gandhi.… (Parivartan Sharma, Reuters )

Reporting from New Delhi — An anti-corruption activist who sparked a major political crisis in India agreed Saturday to end a 12-day hunger strike after officials acceded to his demands for tackling graft.

Septuagenarian Anna Hazare thanked tens of thousands of supporters at the protest site, even as he cautioned that the struggle was far from over.

"I feel this is the country's victory," he told the cheering crowd, adding that "we have won only half the battle." He was flanked by key aides in front of an oversized image of his idol, Mohandas Gandhi.

The evident breakthrough came when Parliament pledged to authorize a new independent lokpal, or ombudsman, to investigate and punish high-level corruption.

The government also agreed to create local ombudsmen to tackle graft at lower levels and said it would provide written outlines of what services each government agency is supposed to provide, and how long it should take.

Corrupt officials in India, as elsewhere, frequently extract bribes by exploiting their power to delay a driver's license, for instance, or passport.

Hazare's protest has tapped a wellspring of anger among citizens fed up with the status quo. India has seen several national scandals recently in telecommunications, real estate and sports management.

Arguably more frustrating to India's millions, however, is pervasive, petty corruption that may include traffic police demanding a few dollars at intersections or officials at the local power authority demanding a bribe to provide electricity.

Although few disagree with Hazare's aims, a growing number of critics have opposed his tactics, terming his populist approach anti-democratic, or blackmail.

The final hours before the deal was struck saw frantic negotiations among government ministers, opposition lawmakers and members of his "Team Anna" advisory group.

"Anna" is an honorific title meaning "elder brother." Kisan Baburao Hazare is the full name of the anti-corruption campaigner, who has lost about 17 pounds since Aug. 16.

Protests in India are hardly unusual, but Hazare has used Twitter and Facebook to win support among affluent young professionals. Analysts have heralded his movement as an awakening of the apathetic middle class.

Hazare and his advisors, wary of the government reneging on its pledge to enact his anti-graft measures, called for lawmakers to show their support by going on the record with a voice vote, which they eventually did.

The hard-nosed negotiator has seen previous victories melt away. In April, the government agreed to pass legislation after Hazare staged a four-day hunger strike. He became disenchanted with the government version, however, which limited the ombudsman to an advisory role without authority over the prime minister or senior judges.

With the end in sight, at least for the time being, Hazare's aides said they were hoping for the best.

"Now at least the Parliament has had to take cognizance of the people's wish, and that is to wipe out corruption from this country," said Medha Patkar, a protest organizer.

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