Premier Manmohan Singh has been boxed into a tight political corner by the populist campaign of Anna Hazare, 74, who aides said had lost five kilos since beginning his fast for stronger anti-corruption laws last week.
Speaking at a national management institute in Kolkata, Singh said “all right thinking persons” agreed on the need to tackle India’s endemic culture of bribes and backhanders.
*”But I feel the complexity of the task is not adequately appreciated,”* he said, in a swipe at Hazare’s narrow focus on strengthening the powers of a proposed “Lokpal” (ombudsman) to monitor politicians and bureaucrats.
*”The creation of the Lokpal as an institution will help, but it will not solve the problem,”* Singh said, arguing that it had to be backed up by judicial reforms and a thorough revamp of government procedure.
Hazare says the government’s proposed Lokpal Bill is too weak and has vowed to continue his fast unless parliament passes his version of the same legislation by August 30.
Singh said his government was *”open to a reasoned debate”* but stressed that there was *”no single solution”* for eradicating corruption.
Hazare’s campaign has tapped into rising discontent — especially among India’s burgeoning middle-class — over a basket of issues that also includes rampant inflation and stifling red tape.
Tens of thousands have gathered every day at the open-air venue in New Delhi where Hazare is fasting in public on a stage backed by a giant photo-portrait of his hero, India’s independence icon Mahatma Gandhi.
*”He has lost five kilograms in the past seven days. His weight has come down to 67 from 72 kg,”* his close associate Manish Sisodia told reporters.
*”Doctors say his health is okay but we are worried,”* Sisodia said.
Hazare is attended by a team of doctors, who can be seen regularly checking his blood pressure and monitoring other vital signs.
He has been given official permission to fast there until September 2.
His emotive protest poses particular problems for Singh’s government, which has been rocked by a succession of multi-billion dollar corruption scandals implicating top officials.
Prompted by a call from Hazare, the campaign took its message Monday to the doors of ministers and senior MPs, with scores of protestors standing outside their private residences and chanting slogans.
Hazare has called for a programme of nationwide civil disobedience if his version of the Lokpal Bill is not passed.
Both sides have said they are open to negotiations, but neither seems willing to make a formal move, relying instead on a number of go-betweens to relay their respective positions.
Hazare has not been without his critics and fellow activist and Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy launched a scathing attack Monday on the *”aggressive nationalism”* behind his campaign.
*”While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare’s demands are certainly not,”* Roy said, adding that Gandhi would have been dismayed by Hazare’s vision of an all-powerful, centralised ombudsman.
*”It will function as an independent administration, meant to counter the bloated, unaccountable, corrupt one that we already have. Two oligarchies instead of one,”* Roy said.
And one of India’s top Muslim clerics cautioned Muslims against joining the anti-graft drive, saying Hazare *”has done nothing for Muslims”* and lacked secular credentials.
*”Today he is fasting against corruption, but in all these years he has never even fasted half a day when communal riots occurred in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, killing so many people,”* Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the imam of Delhi’s famed Jama Masjid mosque, told AFP.