NEW DELHI (Reuters): Family scion Rahul Gandhi broke his silence on Friday to praise fasting activist Anna Hazare behind huge anti-corruption protests and called for more measures to battle graft in a landmark speech aimed at flexing his political muscle as the emerging leader of ruling Congress.
The speech by Gandhi, widely seen as prime minister-in-waiting, came as parliament prepared to debate anti-corruption proposals of self-styled Gandhian activist Hazare in a move to end an 11-day hunger strike that has united millions of Indians against the government.
“In the last few months Anna has helped the people to articulate this same sentiment (against corruption). I thank him for that,” Gandhi told a raucous parliament.
Gandhi, who temporarily took over reins of Congress in August after his mother Sonia Gandhi underwent surgery for an undisclosed illness in the U.S., said one anti-graft bill was not enough and called for sweeping reforms in areas like election funding and mining regulation.
The campaign by 74-year-old Hazare has sparked the biggest protests in decades from a middle class angered by endemic bribes. He emerged as a lightening rod for widespread anger at a political class seen as arrogant and out-of touch.
The debate on Hazare’s proposals to create a powerful anti-corruption agency, a condition he made to end his fast, may take place on Saturday as parliament struggled on Friday to agree on the wording of several of the proposals, sources in the ruling Congress Party told Reuters.
Several thousand supporters gathered by the stage where Hazare was fasting in Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi, singing Bollywood songs.
Hazare has lost 7 kilos, but his health is stable, doctors said.
After a personal appeal from Singh, Hazare said on Thursday evening he would consider breaking his fast if parliament began discussing his tough anti-corruption proposals, including incorporating low level civil servants into graft probes.
There was some confusion to whether Hazare would end the fast at the start of the debate or when the anti-corruption bill was passed, and the debate may not take place on Friday.
“It (the debate) is not listed in the business of today. There doesn’t seem to be a likelihood of it being taken up today,” said parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Kumar Bansal.
With state polls next year ahead of a general election in 2014, Singh is under intense pressure to end a crisis that has paralysed policy making and parliament, as well as further dented his popularity which was hit by high inflation and corruption scandals.
Political parties have united to ask Hazare to end the public fast that has drawn tens of thousands of supporters daily to a muddy expanse of open ground in the capital, with increasing concerns about his health.
The ruling Congress, in power for most of India’s post independence era, was taken by surprise by the strength of the protests. Its mostly silent, elderly leaders fumbled against protesters galvanising support with Twitter and Facebook.
Hazare’s brief arrest and release last week only sparked more protests and the hardline, 78-year-old Singh softened his stance in recent days, even saying on Thursday that the activist had become “the embodiment of our people’s disgust and concern about tackling corruption”.
But Hazare also came under growing criticism that he is holding an elected parliament hostage to his steadfast demands.
Police were forced on Thursday to block streets around the prime minister’s residence and closed metro stations nearby, detaining hundreds of protesters and sending them home in buses, amid fears protests could escalate.
The government wants a deal quickly, worried Hazare’s deteriorating health could force authorities to force-feed him, a move that would make them appear even more out of touch with the peoples’ demands.