New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday took a swipe on civil society activist Anna Hazare, saying “those who believe that their voice and their voice alone represents the will of 1.2 billion people should reflect deeply on that position.” Asserting on the supremacy of Parliament in legislative affairs, Singh also said that they must allow the elected representatives of the people in Parliament to do the job that they were elected for.
Singh said a fast by a self-styled Gandhian anti-corruption campaigner was “totally misconceived”, throwing down the gauntlet in a political standoff that has sparked some of India’s most widespread protests in decades.
The 74-year-old Anna Hazare fasted in jail on Wednesday as thousands of his followers gathered outside in a whirlwind crisis that saw him arrested on Tuesday, and refused to leave jail after the government ordered his releases.
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Hazare, who is demanding tougher laws against rampant corruption in India, insists he wants the right to return to J.P Park where he had originally planned to publicly fast before he leaves jail.
But Singh was uncompromising in a speech to Parliament as opposition lawmakers often tried to shout him down.
“I acknowledge that Anna Hazare may be inspired by high ideals,” a stern-looking Singh said. “However, the path that he has chosen to impose a draft of the bill (Lokpal Bill) on Parliament is totally misconceived.”
The crackdown on the activist and the arrest of his followers met with outrage from the opposition, sparking Parliament’s adjournment on Tuesday and protests, from candle-light vigils to the burning of effigies of government figures, in cities across India.
The arrest and sudden about-turn appeared to confirm a widespread feeling the 78-year-old Singh was out of touch and that his government was clumsy and too riddled with corruption scandals to govern Asia’s third-largest economy effectively.
“Corrupt, repressive and stupid,” was the verdict of The Hindu newspaper. “Anna has the government fumbling,” was the headline of the Mail Today.
More protests were planned across India on Wednesday. There were calls for civil servants to take mass leave and rickshaw drivers to strike.
The ruling Congress party held an emergency meeting early on Wednesday to discuss the crisis.
Opposition parties plan to protest against the arrest in Wednesday’s Parliament session.
Dressed in his trademark white shirt, white cap and spectacles in the style of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, Hazare has won support from many Indians across all walks of life and sick of endemic corruption as their economy booms.
The arrest played into Hazare’s hands. Many parties were sceptical about the fast and there has been criticism the activist was holding democracy hostage. But any doubts about the protest were overshadowed by the arrest.
A weak political opposition means that the government should still survive the crisis, but it could further dim the prospect for economic reforms that have already been held back by policy paralysis and a raft of corruption scandals.
Restive Middle Class
The arrests shocked many in a country with strong memories of Gandhi’s independence battles against colonial rule with fasts and non-violent protests.
Opposition figures likened the crackdown to the 1975 “Emergency” when then-prime minister Indira Gandhi arrested thousands of opposition members to stay in power.
Home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram justified the arrest, saying governments had a right to impose conditions on protests.
The question for many is whether Hazare’s movement will grow in the fast-urbanizing nation of 1.2 billion people whose increasingly assertive middle class is fed up with constant bribes, poor services and unaccountable leaders.
The scandals, including a telecom bribery scam that may have cost the government $39 billion, have not only stymied Singh’s reform agenda, they have dented investor confidence and distracted Parliament just as the $1.6 trillion economy is being hit by inflation and higher interest rates.
Hazare rose to fame for lifting his village in Maharashtra out of grinding poverty. His social activism has forced out senior government officials and helped create a right-to-information act for citizens.
Hazare became the unlikely thorn in the side of the Congress-led coalition when he first went on a hunger strike in April and won concessions from the government. He called off that fast after the government promised to introduce a bill creating a special ombudsman to bring crooked politicians, bureaucrats and judges to book.
The draft of the Lokpal Bill was presented in early August, but activists slammed the version as toothless because the Prime Minister and judges were exempt from probes.
Liz Mathew of Mint contributed to story.