The Indian government opened talks yesterday with aides to fasting anti-graft activist Anna Hazare, as Premier Manmohan Singh offered concessions to persuade the 74-year-old to end his hunger strike.
The talks between Law Minister Salman Khurshid and Arvind Kejriwal, a senior member of Hazare’s campaign, were the first in a dispute that has brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets and boxed Singh’s graft-tainted government into a tight political corner.
The veteran activist’s fast against corruption is focused on anti-graft legislation known as the “Lokpal” (Ombudsman) Bill, recently introduced in parliament.
Hazare insists the current bill is toothless, and is demanding the government adopt and pass his own, more aggressive, version by August 30.
In a letter to the activist on Tuesday, Singh offered a compromise, saying the government would request the speaker of parliament to refer Hazare’s version to the committee that is currently reviewing the government’s draft.
Singh said he would also ask the committee to fast-track its deliberations “to the extent reasonably feasible”.
Singh has called an all-party meeting on the crisis for Wednesday but faces an uphill struggle in building a consensus with opposition parties who have accused him of misjudging and mishandling Hazare’s populist campaign.
Concerns over Hazare’s health, with aides saying he has lost 5.6 kilogrammes (12.3 pounds), have only added to the prime minister’s predicament.
Despite those concerns, a feisty Hazare was in defiant mood when he spoke to cheering supporters earlier yesterday at the open-air venue in central Delhi where he is staging his public fast.
“It would be my good fortune to die for the country,” he said. “My demands will not change. You can cut off my head but not force me to bow down.”
He is attended by a team of doctors, who regularly check his blood pressure and monitor other vital signs.
Hazare’s campaign is particularly sensitive for Singh’s government, which has been rocked by a succession of multi-billion dollar corruption scandals implicating top officials.