Activist Fasts To Fight Indian Corruption

In India, anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare has struck a chord with tens of thousands of his countrymen fed up with government malfeasance. He has been fasting and campaigning for a strict anti-corruption law, much stronger than the one the government has proposed. The law would allow for prosecution at all levels, including the prime minister and the judiciary. Government efforts to negotiate with Hazare broke down, and he was arrested earlier this week. That in turn sparked large protests outside the jail where he was being held. Authorities agreed to release him on condition that his hunger strike last no longer than 15 days. On Friday, his supporters are expected to turn out in huge numbers, and he continues his fast at a large outdoor public space in New Delhi. Some are comparing him to Mohandas Gandhi.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. It's always taken a little something extra to get things done in India. A few rupees to pay bribes is a way of life, but those small sums, and often much larger ones, amount to a culture of corruption and many people in India are sick of it. Now, one man is leading a spirited fight against corruption. And as Elliot Hannon reports from New Delhi, Indians have been taking to the streets to support him.

ELLIOT HANNON: Thousands of protesters showed up in the Indian capital to demand that their government work harder to fight corruption. For hours, they waited in the rain and mud for their leader, India's new anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare. Hazare, a social activist in his 70s, has become the face with the country's growing dissatisfaction with its corrupt political elite.

He's also been a mobilizing force for India's increasingly assertive middle class, as Ruchira Shukla, who works at a call center in New Delhi.

RUCHIRA SHUKLA: We want a stronger law against the corruption. That is not there. If the government will not change the bill, the government will be changed.

HANNON: This is not Hazare's first attempt to spur the government to crack down. Earlier this year, he went on a hunger strike, demanding that the anti-corruption bill, called the Lokpal Bill, become a law. The law would give greater power to an independent investigator to root out corruption, but when the bill languished in parliament, Hazare planned another fast.

The government denied him a permit to hold the protest. Hazare refused to call it off and was arrested. He was released today in a deal that allowed him to conduct his protest fast for the next two weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF INDIAN MUSIC)

HANNON: Protesters danced and sang as they waited for Hazare to arrive. Standing in front of a banner of Gandhi, Hazare rallied the crowd, telling them a second freedom struggle is underway. One of the protesters, Ruchira Shukla, says Hazare is fighting for the right cause.

SHUKLA: He is next to Gandhi. He is the next Gandhi, people say, and I believe it because I have never seen people mobilizing at this level after Gandhi. This is the most important moment in the Republic of India, in the independent India.

HANNON: Although the government agrees corruption is a major problem, India's elite wanted the prime minister and the judiciary, among many others, to be exempt from the Lokpal Bill. Indian home minister P. Chidambaram is worried about tinkering with a delicate constitutional balance.

P. CHIDAMBARAM: But the law will not be made in parliament but will be made by some social activists, however well meaning they are, outside parliament - that is something beyond my comprehension.

HANNON: However, a recent series of high profile corruption cases in the country forced the government to seek a compromise with Hazare and his followers. For Sushila Hujum(ph), a retired teacher, a change is needed for the next generation.

SUSHILA HUJUM: I'm around 60 years. I have passed my life by giving bribes but the part I have gone through I want that the young people to see, those who have life ahead of them. And we should bring some law which can control those who force me to become corrupt.

HANNON: For NPR News, I'm Elliot Hannon in New Delhi.

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