Popular Indian guru Swami Ramdev to start hunger strike against corruption
Swami Ramdev, India’s most popular and powerful yoga guru, rejected an appeal by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday to call off a hunger strike against corruption, the second major challenge to a government losing its authority due to rampant graft. The charismatic guru, who dons a saffron cloth thrown over his bare torso, runs a $40 million-a-year global yoga and health empire and has millions of followers. Some 30 million viewers tune into his daily yoga TV show.
These followers are expected to rally behind him as he begins on Saturday a “fast-to-the-death” in Delhi until the government agrees to pass a tough anti-corruption “Jan Lokpal” bill and set up a task force for repatriating illegal funds held in foreign bank accounts by Indians.
“There will be over 1 crore (10 million) people who will fast,” Ramdev told reporters at Delhi’s airport after holding talks with four government ministers, rushed there by the prime minister to urge him to call off his fast. “We want to get rid of corruption and injustices happening in institutions and we want to make things fair (in India).”
Singh has struggled to shake off a series of corruption scandals that have embroiled senior officials, including a $39 billion telecoms spectrum scam, the biggest in India’s history. There is widespread public anger over the graft scams, which have also hurt foreign investment and helped delay a series of reforms aimed at opening up Asia’s third-largest economy.
In April, veteran activist Anna Hazare, who is in his 70s, went on a hunger strike over the bill, triggering anti-graft protests by thousands of people across the country. He ended it five days later, after the government agreed to allow activists to take part in drafting it, and to then introduce it in parliament’s next session, due to start in July.
While Hazare is widely respected — his campaign has drawn comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi’s protests and hunger strikes that helped end British colonial rule –, Ramdev wields significantly more clout and has vowed to launch a political party for the 2014 national elections to challenge Singh’s Congress.