NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepped up a war of words with a jailed anti-corruption activist Wednesday, calling the activist’s hunger strike ill-conceived and undemocratic as protests about his arrest swelled across the country for a second day.
Thousands of protesters gathered outside Tihar Jail in New Delhi, where 74-year-old Gandhian activist Anna Hazare continued his “fast unto death” to demand tougher laws against official graft.
In Parliament, Singh accused Hazare of trying to circumvent democracy by demanding that lawmakers pass legislation on his terms. “The question before the nation is who drafts the law and who makes the law,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to question the sole prerogative of Parliament to make the law.”
Reading from a prepared statement, Singh used combative words, but he spoke in an almost unintelligible monotone, drawing jeers from opposition benches.
Police imposed strict conditions Tuesday on Hazare’s right to protest, stipulating that his planned fast last no more than three days and that no more than 5,000 people attend.
When Hazare refused those conditions, he was arrested and sent to Tihar Jail, the same prison that holds high-ranking officials and businessmen accused of corruption.
On Tuesday evening, the government made an about-face and ordered Hazare’s release, but the activist refused to leave Tihar Jail without assurances that he could continue his fast in central Delhi. On Wednesday, the police offered him an alternative venue but again tried to limit the duration of the fast. Hazare again refused.
Early Thursday, there were reports that a compromise might have been reached. Reuters reported that an aide to Hazare announced in a series of Twitter posts that Hazare had accepted a police offer to fast in a New Delhi park for 15 days.
Hazare has employed tactics throughout the ordeal straight from Mohandas K. Gandhi’s struggle against British colonial rule.
By arresting Hazare and detaining thousands of his supporters Tuesday, hours before he was to begin his fast, the government appears to have played into Hazare’s hands and further galvanized the popular movement against corruption.
“Corrupt, repressive and stupid,” was the verdict of the Hindu, a respected newspaper. “Anna arrest has the government fumbling,” proclaimed the Mail Today newspaper.
Protests — including candlelight vigils and the burning in effigy of government figures — have gathered pace across the country. There were also one-day strikes in some cities by protesters ranging from auto-rickshaw drivers to lawyers, and thousands of people gathered late Wednesday around India Gate, the capital’s landmark monument and central square.
Outside the high-security Tihar Jail, thousands of protesters have demonstrated since Tuesday evening, carrying placards saying, “The corrupt are selling the nation,” and, “Right to Protest.” They chanted slogans such as “Down with Corruption” and “We are with you, Anna.”Among the protesters outside the jail were farmers, tradesmen, retired army officers, government employees, teachers and even schoolchildren in uniform.
“We have had a fire in us for a long time, but we have never found this kind of an opportunity and a leader we can trust like Anna,” said Om Prakash Bakshi,63, a retired insurance company executive who joined the crowds Wednesday after watching events unfold on television. “We have woken up now. Nobody can stop us. We will root out this corruption from the nation's blood.”
Close by, police constable Kuldeep Singh said he had not eaten all day. “Do you support Anna?” he was asked. “Must you ask?” he replied and laughed. Many other policemen said they backed Hazare’s demands.
The government has introduced a bill in Parliament to establish an independent ombudsman, known as a lokpal, to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials.
Hazare and his supporters say the bill is toothless because it excludes the prime minister, the judiciary and most of the bureaucracy from the ombudsman’s jurisdiction. Hazare has drawn up his own version of what the legislation should look like and has threatened to fast until death unless he gets his way.
At the outset, many people were uncomfortable with those tactics and with Hazare’s vision of a huge, unaccountable anti-corruption investigating agency.
But as the confrontation has dragged on and the government has cracked down, the debate has been transformed.
From a legalistic discussion about the laws and institutions needed to combat corruption, it has evolved into a dispute framed in much more simplistic terms: Is the government serious about fighting graft, and do people have the right to protest peacefully?
On both questions, the government appears to be on the wrong side of public opinion.
Singh, India’s bookish and soft-spoken prime minister, is seeking to frame the dispute as an issue of parliamentary sovereignty and the legislature’s right to write the nation’s laws. Singh also said, “Those who believe that their voice and their voice alone represents the will of 1.2 billion people should reflect deeply on that position.”
Hazare may be “inspired by high ideals,” he told Parliament Wednesday. “However, the path that he has chosen to impose his draft of a bill upon Parliament is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy.”
In an impassioned rebuttal, the senior opposition leader, Arun Jaitley of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused the government of “smugness” and “arrogance.”
“The issue today is not whether we agree with your version of the bill or their version of the bill,” he said. “The issue today is how have you handled a political crisis. Has the government lost all sense of statecraft, of how political agitation should be dealt with?”
Jaitley told lawmakers, “The truth is that India today is exasperated with corruption. India today is exasperated with the political leadership of this government.”
India’s ruling Congress Party accused the U.S. government of supporting Hazare’s movement after a State Department spokeswoman said last week that the administration counted on India to “exercise democratic restraint” in dealing with peaceful protests.
Among those protesting Wednesday was high school student Astha Mani, 16, who went straight from school in her white uniform to join the crowds outside Tihar Jail. She and her classmates carried a huge Indian flag.
“Anna is fighting for our future,” she said. “We are here to say, ‘Thank you.’ ”