Indian activist begins public hunger strike

India's most prominent anti-corruption crusader began a public hunger strike and mass protest Friday, adopting the tactics of liberation hero Mohandas K. Gandhi to push for government reform.

Thousands of cheering supporters braved the pouring rain to greet Anna Hazare as he arrived at the Ramlila fairground hours after he stepped out of a New Delhi jail to wild cheers of "Long live Mother India" and a shower of rose petals.

"The youth of this country has awoken, so a great future for this country is not far off," he told the crowd at the fair ground. "The traitors who have robbed this country will no longer be tolerated."

Anna Hazare's standoff with authorities has galvanized the nation's anger at official corruption and put Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government on the defensive even as it fights off a raft of scandals.

The white-clad 73-year-old activist, who has been fasting since Tuesday and says he has lost 3 kilograms (6.5 pounds), repeatedly invoked Gandhi as he sought to cloak his demands for a tough anti-corruption law in the halo of the revered liberation leader.

"This is a new revolution. This is the new freedom struggle," he said from a stage underneath a massive tent. "We have lit the flame of a revolution. Don't let the flame die out now."

Police briefly arrested Hazare on Tuesday after he declared his intention to hold a public hunger strike in defiance of their restrictions on the demonstration. He began his fast in jail anyway and then refused to leave when they tried to free him, demanding the right to hold a long public demonstration. A compromise was reached Thursday that would allow him to hold a 15-day protest, but Hazare opted to stay in the jail an extra day as the venue was being prepared.

On Friday morning, he stepped out of the jail's gate to the applause of supporters, who climbed atop parked cars to get a glance of the activist before he climbed into the back of a truck to lead a slow-moving procession through the city to the protest venue.

Along the way, Hazare stopped off to pay his respects at the Raj Ghat memorial to Gandhi.

Hazare's protest is aimed at pushing the government to pass his version of a proposed bill to create a powerful ombudsman to police top officials. Activists have criticized the current bill tabled in Parliament as too weak to be effective.

Government officials have criticized Hazare in turn, saying he was twisting time-honored protest tactics to subvert the legislative process and force elected officials to bow to his own agenda.

"The government will have to bend in front of this movement. This is just the trailer, the film is yet to start," said Hazare supporter Prakash Khattar, a bank employee.

In a sign of the deep anger at the government, one poster held aloft outside the jail showed cartoons of government ministers with fangs and looking like donkeys. They had dollar signs emblazoned on them.

"I am Anna, you are Anna. Now the whole country is Anna," read another poster.

"(He) has come like a god to save this country," said Asha Bansal, a home maker. "Everyone is so sick of these politicians who are only out to make money."

Hazare is a retired army driver who transformed himself into the most prominent social activist in his home state of Maharashtra in recent decades. He has held a series of hunger strikes to force the state government to enact reforms and on at least one occasion forced it to capitulate by taking a vow of silence until he got his way.

He shot to national prominence in April when he held a four-day hunger strike to demand the government draft legislation for an anti-corruption watchdog.

But this week — though he was hidden inside a jailhouse and only seen in a brief YouTube video — Hazare turned into a symbol of the national anger over corruption.

Hazare's support springs from a middle class fed up with corruption that spans the 500 rupee ($11) tip they have to pay to get a passport to the tens of billions of dollars the government is estimated to have lost with its shady sale of the cellphone spectrum.

After his arrest Tuesday, thousands marched in cities across the country in support of him. With hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the jail, authorities capitulated to many of his demands and granted him permission for a 15-day public protest. However, Kiran Bedi, a protest organizer, said on her Twitter account Friday that the protest would be "indefinite" until the government caves in and changes the law.

Supporters said they had little doubt they would prevail.

"I have full trust in his ability to bring change," said Khattar, the bank worker.

Others were less optimistic about the scope of the new movement's power.

In a front-page commentary Friday, the business daily Mint said the protests were unlikely to spark major change in Indian governance.

"Business as usual is right around the corner," it said.