Hazare’s next crusade is poll reforms

He said he would attempt to get citizens the right to recall and reject lawmakers who did not live up to their promises

An Indian activist who ended a 12-day hunger strike Sunday after pushing Parliament to consider his anti-graft demands promised his jubilant supporters that his battle against endemic corruption would continue.

"It's the end of my fast but it's not the end of my fight. I will be back," Anna Hazare, 74, told thousands of flag-waving and cheering supporters minutes after accepting a glass of coconut water and honey from two children.

Hazare's protest brought tens of thousands of ordinary Indians, fed up of the country's deeply entrenched corruption, to the New Delhi fairground where he held camp. More people marched in support in dozens of cities across the nation.

Hazare began his fast Aug 16 demanding Parliament pass his sweeping proposal to create a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman to police everyone from the prime minister to the lowest village bureaucrat.

Officials said Hazare's version of the draft bill was unconstitutional and his hunger strike was an attempt to subvert Parliament's legislative role.

Hazare and his aides complained that the government's own bill was too weak to battle the deep rot in India's political system.

In the end, Parliament held a nine-hour debate Saturday that ended with a nonbinding "sense of the house" expressing support for some of his demands: committing to greater transparency and including low-level bureaucrats and state officials under the watchdog's purview.

In the capital, thousands of singing, dancing and cheering supporters gathered Sunday evening to celebrate what they called Hazare's victory.

"We the people of India give ourselves a corruption-free India," one supporter in the crowd told NDTV news channel, paraphrasing the opening sentence of the country's constitution.

"The question is where do we go from here," said Raj Kumar Sagar, an advertising executive in the capital.

Hazare said the next step would be to make the electoral system more responsive to the people. While he gave few details, he said he would attempt to get citizens the right to recall and reject lawmakers who did not live up to their promises.

"Only that will really reduce corruption," he said.

Hazare's protest was fueled by months of scandals — including illicit mining deals and the dubious sale of cellphone spectrum — that tarred the ruling coalition and opposition parties alike. Even as Hazare was fasting, four politicians were charged with buying and selling votes in Parliament.

The government, miscalculating the popularity of his anti-graft message, briefly arrested him to quash his protest, a move that sent tens of thousands of his angry supporters pouring into streets across the country.

Hazare, who claims inspiration from liberation icon Mohandas K Gandhi, eventually was given access to a fairground in the capital, New Delhi, which drew tens of thousands of protesters from India's growing middle class fed up with paying bribes for everything from getting a driver's license to enrolling a child in nursery school.

"People are suffering from corruption, and there seems to be no end," said Prabhat Tiwari, a 25-year-old businessman who came to the protest ground every day for a week.

As the protest dragged on and Hazare's weight plunged more than 16.5 pounds (7.5 kilograms), government ministers and protest leaders haggled over how to end the standoff.

Just before Hazare broke his fast Sunday, one of his aides led the gathered crowd in a pledge: "I take an oath that in my life I will never take a bribe, nor will I give a bribe."

The plan for a government watchdog — which had languished in Parliament for more than four decades — will now go to a legislative committee to work out the details and try to resolve competing visions for the proposed ombudsman's office.

It seems almost certain that lawmakers will now have to take the issue of corruption seriously or risk further protests.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said this past week that the protest had awoken the government to the need for reform. Rahul Gandhi, a top official with the ruling Congress party who is seen as a potential future prime minister, proposed sweeping reform in everything from the electoral system to the graft-riddled mining industry.

"Some beginning has been made. It's difficult to say what will happen," Manoj Kumar, a 24-year-old student, said Sunday at Hazare's protest site. "There is an awakening across the country, so it will now be difficult for the government to ignore people's demands."

Hazare — a former army truck driver credited with organizing his drought-prone village to harvest rain water and use solar power — enchanted many Indians with his stubborn stance against the political system and left them with a rare feeling of empowerment.

The protest "has broken that sense of helplessness that large numbers of people were feeling in this country. It brought a glimmer of hope that we can bring about change," said Neerja Chowdhury, a journalist for The Indian Express newspaper.

The Times of India newspaper credited Hazare with channeling the public anger into "a mass movement that has shaken the government to its foundation and placed the entire political class on notice."

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