NEW DELHI – An Indian activist began his fifth hunger strike in 16 months on Sunday to push for strong anti-graft legislation, but failed to draw the massive crowds that marked the start of his campaign.
A year ago, tens of thousands of middle-class Indians crowded into a New Delhi fairground — braving both pouring rain and a sweltering sun — and pledged support for Anna Hazare as he went without food and water for 12 days to pressure the government to create a wide-ranging anti-corruption watchdog.
But on Sunday afternoon, the frail 75-year-old activist managed to only attract only a few thousand people. Three of his aides have been fasting at the site since last Wednesday.
The activists hope the hunger strike will force Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to take up an anti-graft bill when Parliament resumes Aug. 8.
Hazare and his supporters are also demanding an investigation into corruption allegations against 14 Cabinet ministers.
Hazare, a former army truck driver and social activist from western India, touched a nerve in a country where nearly everyone has paid bribes when he began battling for a powerful ombudsman, newspaper columnist and political commentator Inder Malhotra said.
"But he didn't know how to mobilize that momentum. The protest lost its edge," Malhotra said.
Hazare began with a five-day fast in April last year which ended when the government invited members of his group to help draft anti-corruption legislation. In August, he fasted for 12 days to pressure Parliament to pass a proposal to create a powerful watchdog that would police everyone from the prime minister to the lowest village bureaucrat.
Government-proposed legislation to create a corruption ombudsman — which Hazare has called weak and ineffective — passed the lower house of Parliament last year but is now stalled in the upper house.
Hazare tapped into public anger over a series of corruption scandals, including $4 billion that disappeared during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and a cellphone spectrum licensing scandal that is estimated to have cost the government up to $36 billion in lost revenue.
There was breathless, around-the-clock television coverage of his campaign last year, but now the media coverage is muted.
Several factors played a part in Hazare's movement losing its sheen. Charges of impropriety and corruption tainted some members of his group, often referred to "Team Anna."
Hazare also began to appear with the leaders of the Hindu nationalist opposition party while severely criticizing the governing Congress party. That dented his image as an impartial activist above partisan politics.
The movement lost much of its steam last December when Hazare planned an enormous rally in Mumbai and a hunger strike. Supporters pledged to fill jails by courting arrest. The rally flopped and the fast was soon called off.
Malhotra said Hazare's repeated use of hunger strikes as a form of political protest has worn thin.
"You can't use the same weapon so many times," he said.