New Delhi, Aug 24
An all-party meeting Wednesday urged Anna Hazare to end his nine-day fast for a strong anti-corruption law but the determined 74-year-old activist refused amid persisting differences between his side and the government. A worried Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said “anything can happen” even as efforts were on to “defuse” the crisis.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties asked the government to dump its own Lokpal bill that Hazare aides say is toothless, some others disagreed, indicating the crisis might drag on with no end in sight after a day when it seemed the two sides were narrowing differences on some key points of contention.
Team Anna has declared that Hazare would end his protest only after the government withdraws its Lokpal bill and presents their Jan Lokpal Bill to parliament for approval. The Jan Lokpal Bill advocates the inclusion of the prime minister, the judiciary and the mass of lower bureaucracy in its ambit.
“Present the Jan Lokpal Bill in parliament tomorrow and Anna will end his fast,” his confidant Arvind Kejriwal thundered from the stage where Hazare is fasting, cheered by tens of thousands at the Ramlila ground and across the country on live television.
“If anything happens to Annaji, the government will be responsible,” he added ominously.
Hazare, who has adamantly declined to be shifted to hospital despite his deteriorating health, declared he was ready to continue the fast for another nine days. But he also added “by the way”, telling his rapt and worshipful audience that “no one can say about one’s body. I can have a heart attack tomorrow, but at least I will know that I have died for the country.”
In his remarks at the all-party meeting, Manmohan Singh said Hazare desired a written commitment from the government that it will bring a new version of the Lokpal bill and pass it in this session of parliament.
“The fast of Hazareji and his failing health are a matter of concern to all of us,” Manmohan Singh said, as political party after party demanded a strong Lokpal bill to fight mounting corruption.
Manmohan Singh admitted there was a need for “a strong and independent institution (to) deal effectively with corruption”, but said parliamentary forums cannot be bypassed while framing law.
Later, at the iftar dinner on the lawns of his residence immediately after the all-party meeting, Manmohan Singh said the government was doing its best to “defuse the situation” but was worried that “anything can happen”.
Talking to IANS, Manmohan Singh said it was difficult to say what turn things would take in the next few days. He expressed concern that “hardliners might prevail” in the standoff situation and violence might break out.
“I am not an astrologer,” he said in response to a question whether he was optimistic about a solution in the next few days. “But I remain hopeful.”
Manmohan Singh said the protesters should “listen to the political class”, a reference to the resolution from the all-party meeting.
At the meeting, BJP leader Sushma Swaraj said the government needed to take back its Lokpal bill, which critics say is weak, and present a more effective bill in parliament for its approval.
Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) said the government had taken to “prepare a final draft”. “We want the bill should be passed in this session itself.”
The government and Team Anna leaders held a second round of negotiations with the government Wednesday afternoon, but the talks deadlocked on three “sticking issues”. The meeting lasted for an hour.
Another round started Wednesday night.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan of Team Anna said the major differences included the inclusion of lower bureaucracy in the ambit of Lokpal, having a Lokayukta in each state and a citizen’s charter for each government wings.
Kiran Bedi, Bhushan and Kejriwal had met Mukherjee Tuesday night — the first meeting between the two sides since Hazare launched his fast Aug 16 after his detention by Delhi Police.
Amid mounting worries over his health, a frail looking but defiant Hazare accused the government of insincerity vis-a-vis corruption.
Hazare told cheering crowds, many of whom have travelled from distant corners of the country in the support of the new mascot of the middle class, that the government was corrupt and did not have the heart to pass a comprehensive bill to battle graft.
“If the demands are not met, I will fight till my last breath,” he said. “Even if I die, I don’t care.”