Tuesday, August 23, 2011

PM appeals to Anna to end fast

Even as Anna Hazare announced that his fast against corruption will continue - the 74-year-old is now on his eighth day without food - his widely-welcomed movement against corruption seems to be heading into its third act.

The Prime Minister has written to the activist, urging him to end his hunger strike. In his letter, Dr Manmohan Singh wrote, "We are concerned about your health." He also assured Anna that the activists' version of the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill may be considered by a Parliamentary Committee, if the Speaker of the Lok Sabha permits. This committee - the Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Personnel - has so far been scrutinising the government's version of the Bill.
The Prime Minister met with Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi this evening as the government scrambled to find a compromise that will end the stand-off with Anna and his advisors.

The first set of talks were held by Law Minister Salman Khursheed who met with Anna's close aide, Arvind Kejriwal. After the meeting, Mr Kejriwal told reporters that the government has indicated Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee will lead the negotiations with the activists. Sources in the Congress also say that the party is pressuring Rahul Gandhi to write to Anna.
"Time is running out," said Mr Khursheed. "We need to find a solution fast...and a solution is possible through such talks," said the Law Minister. The government's frantic attempts to engage Team Anna is provoked by the frail condition of Anna and by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of goodwill that draws people in unprecedented numbers to his sit-in at Ramlila Maidan in the Capital. Appearing on stage this morning amid reports of his worsening health, Anna said, "I am fine...I have lost 5.5 kilos but my fight continues." Anna said he still wants his version of the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill to be passed in Parliament. Till that happens, he vowed, he will not end his hunger strike. But his associates indicated subtle new elasticity in their comments today.

Team Anna objects to the government's version of the Lokpal Bill, on the grounds that it provides safe passage to public servants accused of corruption. The activists who front the India Against Corruption movement have drafted their own version of the Bill. Two weeks ago, the government ignored Team Anna's bill and introduced its own in Parliament. The activists declared war and delivered on their threat that Anna would start a fast and appeal to Indians to join his demonstration against corruption.

The government had underestimated Anna's appeal in a country confronting massive graft in everyday life and in its political landscape. While many of the thousands who show up to support Anna don't know how his bill differs from the government's, they say he will help cleanse a system rabid with official improbity.

Anna's health, the fanatical response to him, and the Opposition's support for him has forced the government into a corner from which it's trying to pry its way out. In the hope of engaging with the Opposition, an all-party meeting has been set for 3.30 tomorrow afternoon. Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is being used as a channel for negotiations between all three sides - the government, the Opposition and the activists.

Among Anna's main objections to the government's draft of the Lokpal Bill is that it doesn't apply to the PM, senior judges or junior bureaucrats. While the government may agree to let the Bill apply to the Prime Minister, the activists say they could be persuaded to accept other pieces of legislation that would tackle corruption among senior judges and junior bureaucrats.

The government's version of the Lokpal Bill has been placed with the Standing Committee of Law and Justice and Personnel - a panel that combines 31 MPs from different parties. Now a Congress MP, Praveen Aron, has tabled Anna's version of the Bill before the same committee. Congress sources say his gesture was encouraged by his party because it allows the Standing Committee to deliberate Anna's Bill as well, or add features from it to the government's version.

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