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Hunger strike focuses anger on Indian corruption

A 73-year-old Indian activist harnessing the tactics of Mohandas K. Gandhi has galvanized public anger at rampant corruption with a high-profile hunger strike demanding the government adopt immediate reforms.

Anna Hazare's fast, which entered its third day Thursday, has drawn breathless, round-the-clock TV coverage, attracted the support of an array of opposition — and even some ruling party — politicians and has sent the government scrambling in search of a compromise.

Hazare has said he will continue to consume nothing but water until India's parliament agrees to create a powerful, independent watchdog committee to investigate corruption allegations.

"Today, the country is demanding a change of the politics of bribery and corruption" Hazare told cheering supporters. While the government may oppose his demand for a more powerful ombudsman bill than it has proposed, he said, "The peoples' will shall prevail."

The roadside tent in central New Delhi where Hazare is conducting his public fast has become a pilgrimage site for Indians fed up with the seemingly unending scandals.

Dozens of supporters have joined the fast, while thousands of schoolchildren, office workers, farmers and doctors crowded into the tent or squatted on the nearby road Thursday in a show of solidarity. Many made overnight train journeys to join Hazare.

"The people are outraged. The government has to put an end to the free run that politicians and officials are enjoying. They are plundering the country," said Arti Ganguly, a doctor who came from the northern town of Varanasi, nearly 500 miles (800 kilometers) away, to protest.

Scores of volunteers distributed drinking water to thirsty supporters as they listened to speaker after speaker denounce the government for its failure to check corruption.

Hazare's supporters organized fasts and protest of their own in state capitals across the country.

Public anger with corruption has been growing in the wake of recent scandals, including an investigation into the sale of cell phone spectrum in 2008 that reportedly cost the country tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue. The telecoms minister had to resign and is currently in jail pending a probe into the losses.

The ruling Congress Party has also come under fire for mismanagement and corruption allegations tied to last year's Commonwealth Games and the takeover of valuable Mumbai apartments intended for poor war widows by powerful bureaucrats and politicians' relatives. The country's top anti-corruption official was forced to resign last month after the Supreme Court ruled that graft charges he faced disqualified him from holding the office.

Cabinet Minister Kapil Sibal, the government's mediator with Hazare, said Thursday that the government was willing to set up a committee comprising lawmakers and civil society activists to work on the draft of the proposed ombudsman law. But that was not enough for Hazare's supporters, who want him to head the committee.

Further discussions would be held Friday, Sibal said after talks with protest leaders.

Hazare, often referred to as a modern-day Gandhi, has adopted many of the tactics that India's independence leader employed against British colonial rulers.

Dressed in a hand-spun cotton tunic and sarong, reminiscent of the man he cites as his inspiration, the soft-spoken Hazare often uses public fasts to pressure the government.

Pamphlets distributed at the protest site and many speakers referred to Hazare as "Mahatma," or great soul, an honorific frequently used to describe Gandhi.

Hazare already appears to be making an impact. On Wednesday, Sharad Pawar, India's agriculture minister, withdrew from a committee on corruption after Hazare pointed out that charges of graft were raised against him in the past.

On Thursday, the governing Congress party chief, Sonia Gandhi, appealed to Hazare to end the hunger strike.

"I am sure that Anna's views will receive the government's full attention as we move forward to fight this menace," she said in a statement. The political leader and widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is not related to Mohandas Gandhi.

Hazare's protest came amid highly charged campaigns for local elections in a series of states that will test the ruling Congress Party's popularity in the wake of the scandals.

Hoping to capture some of Hazare's popularity, politicians have flooded the protest site, but the ire against politicians is so high that Hazare's associates barred them all from sitting beside him on the dais. Three opposition leaders who went to the site Thursday were shooed away by angry protesters. Others were seen standing quietly among the crowds at the venue.

"The current climate of graft is entirely due to these political leaders. We are not going to let any politician hijack our agenda," said Ramesh Rattan, a volunteer with "India Against Corruption," one of the groups organizing the protest.