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Indian Activist Hazare to Resume Protest Friday

18 August 2011
The Wall Street Journal

NEW DELHI – Indian social activist Anna Hazare was preparing to launch a major anti-corruption protest and hunger strike on Friday after New Delhi police relaxed their restrictions on the length and size of the event, setting the stage for a dramatic confrontation between civil society and the government in coming days.

Mr. Hazare was arrested Tuesday for planning the gathering without sanction from the government, but authorities were pressured to release him Thursday after large-scale agitations around the country by his supporters. Police loosened from three days to 15 the time limit for the protest and removed a cap of 5,000 on the number of attendees, allowing as many people as the protest site can hold, according to a New Delhi police spokesman.

Prashant Bhushan, a prominent lawyer and close aide of Mr. Hazare, said the activist was still in Tihar Jail Thursday; he was waiting for the site at New Delhi's Ramlila Grounds to be prepared for his protest on Friday, Mr. Bhushan said.

A supporter of social activist Anna Hazare wore chains around his hands as he participate in a rally to support for Hazare in Hyderabad, India, on Thursday.

Mr. Hazare's team of activists and the Congress party-led government have been at loggerheads for months over the creation of a new independent agency to prosecute corruption cases against government officials. Mr. Hazare envisions a body with far greater powers than the one the government has proposed, including the ability to investigate a sitting prime minister and judges.

But the standoff has morphed in recent days, partly because of Mr. Hazare's arrest, from a debate over corruption into one over the rights of civil society to organize, air its views, and influence policymaking. The hunger strike will amount to a game of chicken: Mr. Hazare is betting that the public's rising rage at corruption and the government's conduct in recent days will help him maintain momentum and sympathy; the government is betting the crowds will eventually fizzle as the spectacle drags on and middle-class people tire of ongoing disruptions in the nation's capital. A Congress spokesman couldn't be reached for comment.

Many analysts expect an inevitable compromise to extricate India from what has quickly become a national crisis. "Both parties will need a face-saving way out of this," said C.V. Madhukar, director of the Parliamentary Research Service, which tracks legislation in Parliament. "It is delicately poised and needs a lot of deft handling at this point."

Mr. Madhukar said the government could easily offer amendments to the legislation it has introduced in Parliament, which creates an 11-member commission that would investigate corruption complaints against government officials and prosecute cases within two years.

But Mr. Hazare's team, which has had a purist discipline – insisting that its version of the bill should be taken up wholesale – would have to settle for some compromises too, he said.

Supporters of Mr. Hazare gathered around the country Thursday for the third day. Preeti Ramania, 45, a private school teacher who was among the several thousand demonstrating near a Mumbai train station, said the government should take up Mr. Hazare's bill as it is.

"We want the bill to be implemented in its entirety. Only in that sense will India be free," she said.

Beyond demanding that the anti-corruption agency cover the prime minister and judiciary, Mr. Hazare also wants civil society to have a strong say in the makeup of the commission – it has very little say under the government's plan – and wants the body to have powerful investigative tools like wiretapping and the ability to fire public officials after an investigation.

C. Raj Kumar, dean of Jindal Global Law School outside New Delhi, who has studied institutions set up to tackle corruption in various countries, said Mr. Hazare's team's approach is "more carefully calibrated to create an independent agency" than the government's proposal. He suggested on the issue of the prime minister, a compromise could be to create a review board within the ombudsman agency that could vet complaints against the prime minister and dismiss any deemed without merit and solely intended to embarrass him politically.

The episode has highlighted how ill-equipped India's political system is to incorporate public sentiment into the policy-making process, some experts say. There are no public hearings to systematically gather input from various corners of society before legislation is drafted and introduced in Parliament. Instead, the early stages of the policy process are secretive and controlled tightly by the ruling party.

Earlier this year, the government tried to engage Mr. Hazare's team by forming a joint committee to draft the anti-corruption bill. Those talks quickly fell apart, but Arun Maira, a member of India's Planning Commission, said the talks were never broad enough to capture public sentiment and effectively "shut out a lot of other voices and stakeholders" including opposition parties and activists other than Mr. Hazare. He said the government should now pledge to initiate a quick round of televised public hearings on the anti-corruption agency.

"The chances people will object will be much less, because their views would already be taken on board" before legislation goes to Parliament for a vote, Mr. Maira said.