India government gets respite as graft activists fumble

NEW DELHI Fri Nov 4, 2011 9:26am GMT

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare waves to his supporters in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on the 12th day of his fasting at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi August 27, 2011. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare waves to his supporters in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on the 12th day of his fasting at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi August 27, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Back in the summer, mass anti-corruption protests modelled on Mahatma Gandhi's methods had India's government running scared. Now, the political class has a new spring in its step as splits and scandals tarnish the movement's leaders.

These have been tough days for Anna Hazare, the 74-year-old activist whose two-week hunger strike in August captivated the nation and forced a humiliated government to bow to his demands for a powerful new graft watchdog.

Accusations of financial misdeeds against Hazare's top advisers have smudged an aura of blamelessness around his movement - to the glee of the ruling Congress party as it gears up for parliament's winter session and bellwether state elections next year.

"It's put us in a defensive situation," said Kiran Bedi, a former police officer and senior member of Hazare's movement who this week said she would return some cash after accusations she inflated travel expenses. "It taps lots of extra energy, but you have to draw on your reserves."

Bedi, who shot to fame in the 1980s after she towed away ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's car for a traffic violation, denies any personal gain.

Another top adviser of Hazare this week paid $18,000 (11,250 pounds) in overdue taxes, saying he had done no wrong and the government was running a smear campaign.

It is too soon to write off a movement that made political activists of millions of previously apathetic middle class voters fed up with a venal elite, but there is a sense the scales have for now shifted to the main political parties.

The government is deeply unpopular because of high prices and multi-billion-dollar corruption scandals, but it would rather fight the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party on these issues than a multifarious street movement.

"Congress has been dented by Team Anna's assaults, and on a parallel track the opposition has gained, but it's really back to normal," said Swapan Dasgupta, a former editor of news magazine India Today.

"The party system is more resilient than was made out, there were certain tremors for three weeks or so, but that has not really undermined institutional politics," Dasgupta said.

VOW OF SILENCE

Hazare himself retreated to his village complaining of ill health and observed a vow of silence for 19 days. He travelled to Delhi on Friday to lead talks on the anti-graft bill, breaking his silence with the nationalist slogan and army battle cry "Bharat Mata ki Jai" or "Victory for Mother India."

"The fight against corruption and for the Jan Lokpal bill is going on and will continue until corruption is completely uprooted," said the retired soldier, who once called for corrupt politicians to be hanged.

Hazare repeated a threat to use his vast popularity to campaign against the Congress party in five election-bound states - including the largest of them all, Uttar Pradesh - a controversial partisan policy that has divided supporters.

A test of this tactic by Hazare's team in a by-election in October was nominally a success: the Congress candidate had so few votes he lost his deposit. But by taking sides in the political fray, Hazare split his own movement and two core activists left.

It now looks increasingly possible that the leadership of the movement will dissolve if parliament passes the bill to create the corruption ombudsman in its month-long winter session starting Nov 22.

"What we are hoping is that, irrespective of what happens, whether the same team or the same leadership carries on the movement, we hope and we expect that the momentum and the energy will be carried on," said Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer who helped draft the bill.

Ultra-nationalists burst into Bhushan's office and beat him up while he was being interviewed by a TV channel in October after he said citizens of the contested region of Kashmir should be allowed to vote on autonomy from India.

Hazare, who says he was scarred by a bullet during a 1965 war with Pakistan over the Kashmir issue, reacted angrily to Bhushan's comments and said he was ready to fight another war with India's arch-rival.

If Hazare's principal aim of creating a powerful new tool to fight the rampant culture of graft in high politics and business is met, many of his allies, including Bedi, say they would be ready for a rest.

"You cannot expect the same group of people who have come together on the particular issue of corruption, to carry on many other issues in which there could be some difference of opinion," said Bhushan.

(Additional reporting by Annie Banerji; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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