- Associated Press - Monday, August 22, 2011

NEW DELHI — Criticism mounted Monday against an Indian activist’s hunger strike, with public figures saying it threatens democracy and smacks of demagoguery, even as thousands joined his protest demanding stronger anti-corruption legislation.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - whose government has been beset by scandal - appeared to dismiss Anna Hazare’s demands, saying, “There is no magic wand that can solve the problem in one stroke.”

But the diminutive 73-year-old Mr. Hazare remained undaunted. Encouraged by TV cameras and thousands of chanting supporters, he has vowed to fast indefinitely until authorities pass his version of a bill - instead of the government’s draft - creating a powerful corruption watchdog.

He has faced little criticism since beginning his fast last Tuesday, but prominent activists have begun speaking out as his message gains traction in public debate.

“The props and the choreography, the aggressive nationalism and flag waving … signal to us that if we do not support The Fast, we are not ‘true Indians,’ ” Arundhati Roy, one of India’s best-known writers and activists, wrote Monday in the Hindu newspaper.

She criticized Mr. Hazare’s bill as “so flawed that it is impossible to take seriously” and it ignores other prominent institutions like corporations and the media.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands carrying signs saying “I am Anna Hazare” have protested across India to support the hunger strike. TV channels were giving 24-hour news coverage including urgent updates on Mr. Hazare’s weight, and TV anchors have declared “India is One.”

Mr. Hazare - styling himself after Indian freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi - clearly has touched a nerve in a country weary from rampant corruption.

Everyone from poor rural farmers to urban middle-class professionals complains of having to pay bribes for basic services, including health care, school admission and registration of death.

No one disputes Mr. Hazare’s essential message that corruption is harming India. But critics questioned his demand to give the proposed watchdog authority to investigate and prosecute top judges and the prime minister. In many democracies, judges and top elected officials have immunity while in office to protect them from politically motivated prosecutions.

Mr. Singh noted that his government had only recently tabled its ombudsman bill for a parliamentary debate that would “take time” as lawmakers seek consensus. He expressed frustration with the protests: “I feel the complexity of the task is not adequately appreciated.”

Mr. Hazare’s insistence, through a hunger strike, that only his proposal can fix the problem also has unnerved civic leaders who dispute the impression that Mr. Hazare and his team represent all of India.

Others said Mr. Hazare’s demands smacked of demagoguery and trampled on democratic institutions.

In the meantime, Mr. Hazare’s team said he had lost 11 pounds. Authorities are required to intervene if Mr. Hazare’s life is at risk, as suicide is illegal in India.

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