India’s PM open to talks as anti-graft protests gather pace

 NEW DELHI (Reuters) – At least 20,000 people gathered yesterday to support an anti-corruption social activist who has galvanized much of India against the government with his hunger strike, amid signs from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of compromise to end the impasse.

Anna Hazare, a 74-year-old self-styled Gandhian activist lay on a stage on his fourth day of fasting at an open ground in the capital, a hunger strike he says which will continue until the government passes tougher anti-graft legislation.

The crowd, which police estimated to have climbed to 25,000 by the evening, included many middle-class office workers and students.

“We believe we have got independence but we haven’t. The same corruption, same loot(ing), same terror is going on,” Hazare told the crowd, adding that India needed electoral reforms as well as a new corruption bill.

Hazare left jail on Friday, to huge cheering crowds and widespread media coverage. He had been briefly arrested on Tuesday, but then refused to leave jail until the government allowed him to continue his public fast for 15 days.

Hazare’s campaign has struck a chord with millions of Indians, especially the expanding middle-class sick of endemic bribes, and has become a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as his government battles corruption scandals.

There were signs the government, which has its own anti-corruption bill in parliament, was looking for a compromise to the hardline stance it took earlier in the week. Parliament published adverts in newspapers yesterday asking for public input to the anti-graft legislation.  “We are open to discussion, dialogue,” Singh told reporters yesterday. “There is a lot of scope for give and take.”

One of India’s first female police officers and among Hazare’s main supporters, Kiran Bedi, told Reuters that they are not against discussing provisions of their bill with the government.
“We have heard such statements before, but in concrete terms we do not know what it means,” said Bedi.

“We would be willing to show flexibility.”

Several scandals, including a telecoms bribery scandal that may have cost the government up to $39 billion, led to Hazare demanding anti-corruption measures. But the government bill creating an anti-graft ombudsman was criticised as too weak.

For many, the pro-Hazare movement has highlighted the vibrant democracy of an urban generation that wants good governance rather than government through regional strongmen or caste ties — a transformation that may be played out in 2012 state polls that will pave the way for a 2014 general election.

“The times when you could rule India without its urban middle class are now over,” wrote commentator Shekhar Gupta in The Indian Express.

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