Team Anna starts hunger fast, targets ministers and President Pranab

New Delhi: Activist Anna Hazare and his aides began their sit-in protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar today to highlight the corruption within the government and to push for the anti-graft Lokpal Bill.  Anna, who is 75, will begin fasting on Sunday, despite the advice of doctors who say he should not join the hunger strike led by Arvind Kejriwal.

The backdrop of the stage has photographs of the Prime Minister and 14 other senior ministers who Team Anna wants investigated for alleged graft.  Among them is Pranab Mukherjee, who was sworn-in today as India’s 13th president. Team Anna covered the photograph of MR Mukherjee with a cloth as Mr Kejriwal alleged that the Congress has “put a chadar (veil)” to protect the former finance minister.

Mr Kejriwal said Mr Mukherjee could  not have become President if the Lokpal bill had been passed. “According to the  Constitution, the President has immunity against any investigation. We have given evidence against Mukherjee to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi two months ago,” he said.  Referring to his hunger fast, he said the government will be happy to watch the activists perish.

The government was also brusque. Law Minister Salman Khurshid suggested the activists should “write to the United Nations.”  He said, “They want an  independent probe into matters which have been rejected and disapproved by the Supreme Court.”

Mr Kerjriwal said Team Anna plans to use the fast as a platform to share evidence collected against the ministers it has accused of graft. There was a fight at the venue in the morning, when a group of 15-20 people shouted slogans against Mr Kejriwal.  Team Anna says they were members of the Congress’ youth wing, the NSUI. The party has denied this.

These ministers were “outed” by Team Anna at a press conference in May. They said they had documents to prove their charges against each of the ministers; in a letter to the Prime Minister, they warned of an indefinite hunger strike if he did not commission an independent inquiry. The activists faced a severe backlash from politicians and others who accused them of making unsubstantiated charges.

The turnout today at Anna’s camp was small compared to the sort of crowds he gathered last August, when he held a 16-day long hunger strike in Delhi to demand new legislation to tackle corruption. Largely because of his efforts, the Lokpal Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha in December, but has not cleared the upper house or Rajya Sabha. Yesterday, Anna said this proves that the government is not serious about introducing what could be landmark legislation. The Lokpal Bill creates a national ombudsman or Lokpal that is empowered to investigate charges of venality against government servants. The version of the bill that was approved by the Lok Sabha does not have Anna’s blessing – he says the powers of the ombudsman are too limited.

A few days ago, Anna accused the government of trying to divide his team. He said that he met privately with Law Minister Salman Khurshid in June near Pune. He said that he had not gone public with details of this meeting because the minister had requested confidentiality. Mr Khurshid allegedly promised that the PM and Congres President Sonia Gandhi would look into his concerns about the Lokpal Bill. Anna’s aides admitted privately that they were upset that he had not told them of the meeting sooner. They also cited a letter sent by Minister of State in the PM’s Office, V Narayansamy, as evidence that the government was trying to engineer a split within their ranks. The letter was addressed to Anna but was delivered to his team in Delhi. It thanked Anna for his assistance to the government on the matter of the Lokpal bill – activists say this made it seem as if Anna had been in private discussions with the government about the legislation.

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