Indian gov't skewered for graft as activists fast

A TV yoga celebrity and a Gandhian social activist staged twin hunger strikes Wednesday to demand the government take immediate steps to fight an entrenched culture of corruption that has plagued India for decades.

Thousands of people have joined their protests by fasting in other cities, echoing the tactics of freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi.

The strategy has made for lively political theater, with near-nonstop TV coverage of yoga guru Baba Ramdev swaddled in orange robes and lying on a mattress surrounded by supporters as he forgoes food for a fifth day in his north Indian ashram.

But the hunger strikes have unnerved officials and some analysts, who question whether unelected officials should be able to manipulate policy with public stunts. The government agreed to Ramdev's demands for action last week but was unable to stop his protest.

"An elected government has been hijacked by intellectual charlatans, former babu busybodies, has-beens and wannabes, even some assorted nutcases and loonies," Shekhar Gupta, editor The Indian Express newspaper, wrote in a weekend editorial.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged Cabinet ministers to declare their assets to improve government transparency, even as officials increasingly criticize the swami, with some saying his protest smacks of religious agitation by Hindu nationalist allies. Some of those Hindu hard-liners have shared the stage during his fast.

Tax investigators are also looking into Ramdev's fortune, which is thought to total hundreds of millions of dollars in donations.

Political analyst Mukul Kesavan said the government appeared panicky as it tried both to accommodate and to dismiss the activists' demands.

"Until now, the government has been completely insensitive to the fact that corruption has become such a public business," Kesavan said. "A hunger strike is easy to ignore, but these tactics are successful when they represent a consensual majority of public view."

In the capital, hundreds of people joined 73-year-old rights activist Anna Hazare at a daylong fast at the main Gandhi memorial. Hazare planned the protest after Ramdev and thousands of his followers were forced from a New Delhi park in a Sunday raid that injured dozens and sparked even more public outrage.

Officials said they were forced to break up the protest after tens of thousands showed up, though only 5,000 had been approved. Police also said the event, billed as a mass yoga session, had taken on a combative tone with "provocative" speeches.

Ramdev — who had temporarily skirted police by disguising himself in women's clothing — resumed his protest Monday from his ashram in Haridwar.

On Wednesday, Ramdev and Hazare both ramped up their rhetoric, with warnings — widely dismissed as hyperbole — of armed struggle and protesters dying of starvation.

Ramdev, who has called for the death penalty for those convicted of corruption, said he was arming thousands of supporters to block any police action to disrupt the fast.

"We will prepare 11,000 men and women so that next time we do not lose any battle," he said, according to Press Trust of India.

He said he forgave the prime minister for Sunday's crackdown, but added "the history of not only India but the whole world will never forgive him for the political sin he committed. He has tainted democracy."

Doctors, meanwhile, said Ramdev's health was deteriorating and he should end the fast soon.

Public anger in India has been mounting as the government has faced a series of embarrassments over improper telecoms licensing, illegal land acquisitions and irregularities in staging last year's Commonwealth Games.

Hazare staged a four-day hunger strike in April, which Ramdev joined, ending with the government setting up a committee to draft legislation for an anti-corruption watchdog. The committee, which includes Hazare and other nonelected activists, has met regularly since then.

The activists insist, however, that the government can do more, and Hazare on Wednesday threatened yet another hunger strike if the new anti-graft laws were not passed by Aug. 16.

"The second struggle of independence has started. We are ready to sacrifice our lives but will not buckle under pressure," Hazare told his followers, who fasted beneath a giant white canopy.

The activists want immediate action to seek the return of billions of dollars stashed abroad by companies and rich Indians.

A recent report by Global Financial Integrity suggested at least $464 billion had disappeared overseas since Indian independence in 1947. The illegal flow of cash has swelled to an average of $16 billion a year as the economy has grown in recent years.

The gap between India's rich and the poor — who make up a vast majority of India's 1.2 billion population — has widened over the past two decades despite record economic growth, exacerbating social tensions and prompting voters to take their complaints to the polls. Graft was the main focus of last month's regional elections, which ousted state governments in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu that were seen as tainted by scandal and political favoritism.

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