NEW DELHI — India’s anti-corruption crusaders tried to breathe new life into their sagging movement Sunday when two of the harshest critics of the government came together for the first time to fast and protest new graft allegations.
But old rifts reopened when the demonstration was marred by a disagreement onstage, raising doubts about the movement’s ability to mount a formidable challenge to India’s corruption-tainted government.
The two activists who led separate protests during last year’s anti-corruption movement — popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev and 74-year-old social worker Anna Hazare — came together Sunday to project a unified front against rising incidents of big-ticket corruption in the government. Their joint appearance was aimed at doubling the strike against the besieged national government, whose credibility appeared to hit rock bottom last week with slowing economic growth, rising prices and a fresh set of graft allegations involving coal mining contracts.
In the latest corruption scandal, revealed by an independent government audit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s team is accused of giving away coal mining contracts to companies instead of auctioning them through a competitive bidding process. According to the report, the failure to auction the national resource cost the Indian exchequer about $33 billion, more than the alleged losses from the telecommunications scandal last year.
Sunday’s event drew thousands of protesters who sat under an orange tent in central New Delhi close to the parliament building. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into government irregularities in awarding the coal contracts and legislation that would force the return of billions that corrupt officials illegally stashed in banks abroad.
But the new bonhomie appeared to crack within a few hours as Ramdev objected when a key Hazare strategist named corrupt leaders in parliament. “We had agreed not to name anybody,” Ramdev told the assembled crowd. Soon after, the strategist, Arvind Kejriwal, left the stage saying he was not feeling well.
This was not the first time such differences have been aired. In recent months, the heady success of last year’s protests against graft appeared to be in disarray. Activists had lost much of their earlier sheen and were busy battling internal bickering and thinning attendance compared with the heady street protests seen a year ago.
Sunday marked the first time activists accused Singh directly of allowing irregularities, because he was supervising the coal ministry between 2006 and 2009.
“The nation is in great peril,” said Ramdev, whose protest last year was stalled by brutal police action. “The prime minister must make his government free of corruption.”
Hazare told protesters that he would circulate an anti-corruption resolution in every village cluster across India over the next few weeks.