Indian PM pushes to end anti-graft fast
New Delhi - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to chair an all-party meeting on Wednesday as the government stepped up efforts to end a public standoff with fasting anti-graft activist Anna Hazare.
In the first significant attempt to break the deadlock, Singh wrote to Hazare on Tuesday, urging him to end his hunger strike and offering some concessions to his demands for a stronger anti-corruption law.
Senior government ministers also met for the first time with Hazare's top aides, who said the prime minister's proposals, while welcome, did not go far enough and would not convince the 74-year-old activist into breaking his fast.
Hazare is staging his protest in a large open-air venue in central Delhi where tens of thousands of supporters have gathered every day to cheer on the man who has become a symbol of national dissent.
His anti-graft drive has brought people onto the streets of cities across the country, calling for an end to the culture of corruption that permeates all levels of Indian society.
The breadth and depth of support for the campaign has shaken Singh's government, whose own anti-corruption credentials have been tainted by a succession of multi-billion-dollar scandals implicating top officials.
Refusing hospital care
With his protest entering the ninth day, there are mounting concerns over Hazare's health among the team of doctors who constantly monitor his vital signs.
"We recommended last night that for safety reasons he should be admitted to hospital... but he refused to move," the head of the medical team, Naresh Trehan, told reporters on Wednesday morning.
"He initially agreed to us administering intravenous fluids, but then refused later," Trehan said.
Hazare's main demand is that a government anti-corruption bill currently before parliament be withdrawn and replaced by a more stringent version drafted by himself and other civil society leaders.
In his letter to the activist, the prime minister said he was willing to request that the speaker of parliament refer Hazare's version to the standing committee that is reviewing the government's draft.
He also said the committee would be asked to fast-track its deliberations.
Too little too late
"I do hope that you will consider my suggestions and end your fast to regain full health and vitality," Singh said.
The concessions marked a shift by the prime minister, who last week had condemned Hazare's demands as "totally misconceived" and a threat to India's parliamentary democracy.
But senior Hazare aides, who met late on Tuesday with a high-profile government delegation led by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, said the concessions were too little too late.
"We told them that the prime minister's offer is not acceptable," said one aide, Arvind Kejriwal, adding that Hazare wanted a written commitment that his bill would be debated by the full parliament.
In his letter, Singh struck a conciliatory tone, saying his government shared Hazare's desire for the strongest possible anti-corruption law.
"At worst, our paths and methodologies may differ, though I do believe that even those differences have been exaggerated," he said.
Prominent Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, writing in the Hindustan Times on Wednesday, said Hazare's success in spotlighting corruption among India's political class had to be translated into constructive reform.
"The task now is not to further polarise State and society, but to find democratic and transparent ways of making politicians more efficient and less venal," Guha wrote.