India's Anti-Graft Crusader Agrees To Public Fast

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A renowned Indian anti-corruption crusader has struck a deal with police to hold a 15-day public hunger strike against graft. The deal ends a bizarre standoff at a New Delhi prison where the activist's brief detention had turned into a sit-in protest. Renee Montagne talks to Amol Sharma, who's been covering the story for The Wall Street Journal.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now, to India, and one man's fight against corruption. Anna Hazare has been battling with government officials over his right to stage a hunger strike in protest against widespread corruption. Now he's won that right, but only after his arrest sparked protests throughout India.

Amol Sharma�has been covering the story for the Wall Street Journal. And we reached him in Delhi.

Good morning.

Mr. AMOL SHARMA (Wall Street Journal): Good to be with you.

MONTAGNE: First a little background. Tell us about Anna Hazare and his - first of all, his decision to stage this hunger strike.

Mr. SHARMA: Well, Anna Hazare is the activist that's become the figurehead for civil society's movement here against corruption. He and his associates have basically been pushing to create a new watchdog agency that would prosecute corruption cases at the highest level of government.

The government has its own proposal which the activists believe is far too weak, and that is the reason that Hazare has been out protesting. His hunger strike is basically part of his campaign to force the government's hand to accept his version of the bill.

So he wants to include the prime minister under the purview of this agency so that a sitting prime minister could be prosecuted, and also the judiciary. And those are two big sticking points.

MONTAGNE: Why was the government so tough in this case? I mean, why was he arrested?

Mr. SHARMA: Well, the government has oscillated back and forth between trying to have a - use a soft hand and a softer approach, and then a harder approach at other times. So initially, the government tried to engage the civil society on this. There was as committee set up where the two sides were going to draft legislation to create this new agency, and that broke down a few months ago.

Since then, it's just become harder and harder line. So the PM and top officials have been portraying Anna Hazare as sort of a rogue social activist who's using tactics that are far too aggressive and radical. And that led to his arrest the other day preemptively, before the protest happened.

So that was a very aggressive move by the government, and one that even some officials now are publically saying that they regret.

MONTAGNE: Right. I mean, now he is being compared by some there, I gather, to Gandhi. But did he have a lot of supporters before he was arrested?

Mr. SHARMA: He did. Earlier this year, he staged another hunger fast, and that brought tens of thousands of people out. Of course, in a country of a billion people, it's hard to gauge what the wider middle-class thinks, particularly non-politically-engaged people. But right now, he does have a lot of public support.

You wonder if his hunger strike drags on for days or weeks and, you know, it disrupts traffic and the rallies get out of control, you wonder if he could maintain that support with the general public. But for right now, he does have a lot of sympathy.

MONTAGNE: Although it sounds like he touched a chord in India about corruption.

Mr. SHARMA: He did touch a chord. People are outraged. He's tapped into a sense of complete helplessness among the citizenry about the public officials basically being top-to-down corrupt. And that's one thing that you can sense on the streets - I was out at a rally last night in Central Delhi - is people are just completely angry with the way the government has handled this crisis, and with its lack of solutions to - how to tackle corruption. So he has definitely tapped into that.

MONTAGNE: Well, what do you think might happen now with - as regards to the government? I mean, will it go along with his demands? I mean, what's the sense?

Mr. SHARMA: It's hard to say. I mean, the only way out of the crisis at this point is for the government and Hazare's team to reach some sort of compromise on this agency and what its powers should be. We'll have to see. I mean, if he - if Hazare can keep up the pressure with a few more days of this hunger fast and keep drawing huge crowds, you imagine that ultimately, the government would have to bend, to some degree. But it's impossible to see what the final compromise would look like right now, they're just so far apart.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking to Amal Sharma of the Wall Street Journal in Delhi.

Thanks very much.

Mr. SHARMA: Thank you.

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