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India’s leader urges Anna Hazare to end hunger strike

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NEW DELHI — On the eighth day of anti-corruption demonstrations, the Indian prime minister urged an activist to end his hunger strike and offered to request a parliamentary panel to discuss stronger legislation against graft.

In his first overture to Anna Hazare, the leader of the nationwide uprising against corruption, Manmohan Singh wrote in a letter that they shared the same goal but differed in their methods. Both wanted to “reduce significantly, if not eliminate, the scourge of corruption,” Singh wrote.

The letter was hand-delivered to Hazare, who is fasting in a large park in New Delhi. The park has become the epicenter of the expression of public rage at rising corruption.

After a series of backroom meetings Tuesday, Singh appointed Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee as the chief negotiator with Hazare’s aides.

After the first round of talks with Mukherjee, activists said that the discussions were inconclusive and that more meetings will be held Wednesday.

“Unless there is a written commitment or a direct commitment from someone in the government, Anna is not going to relent. I wish we had started these talks two or three days ago,” said Kiran Bedi, an associate of Hazare.

Singh’s government introduced a bill in Parliament this month to establish an independent anti-corruption ombudsman. But Hazare called the legislation “good for nothing,” because it denies the ombudsman the power to act against the prime minister, the judiciary and much of the bureaucracy. The protesters have demanded that the government introduce their version of such a bill, which gives sweeping powers to the ombudsman.

Hazare and his aides had set a deadline of Aug. 30 for the government to introduce their bill. In his letter, however, Singh emphasized “parliamentary supremacy and constitutional obligations in matters of legislation,” indicating that legislative procedures cannot be bypassed. But he offered to refer Hazare’s bill to the parliamentary panel examining the issue and assured that the process can be fast-tracked.

The campaign against graft snowballed into a massive movement after a string of big-ticket corruption scandals came to light since October. The ombudsman legislation has been pending for 42 years and has been introduced in Parliament several times but has never been passed.

“The ice has been broken. Deadlock has been broken. Talks have begun. We are all concerned about Anna’s health,” said spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who heads the Art of Living Foundation and supports the anti-corruption campaign.

Singh expressed “deep and abiding concern” for Hazare’s health, as alarm grew Tuesday after his aides said the activist had lost more than 12 pounds since beginning the hunger strike.

Doctors have advised that Hazare be hospitalized or be administered a glucose drip. But he refused both and appealed to the protesters to prevent the government from taking him to the hospital by force.

“Today is the eighth day, but there is nothing to worry. I have lost 5.5 kilograms, but there is no other difficulty,” a tired-looking Hazare said in his morning speech to thousands of cheering protesters. “I will consider myself fortunate if I lose my life in the service of the nation.”

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