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Under pressure, Anna Hazare may tone down demands

Anna Hazare displays a mock torch to his supporters on the fourth day of his fasting at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi
Anna Hazare displays a mock torch to his supporters on the fourth day of his fasting at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi

By Paul de Bendern and Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Supporters of an anti-graft activist whose hunger strike campaign has galvanized millions of Indians appeared to reach out to the country's embattled government on Sunday after coming under pressure to tone down their demands.

At least 50,000 people gathered on Sunday to support Anna Hazare, a 74-year-old self-styled Gandhian activist who was on his sixth day of fasting at an open ground in the capital, one of the biggest protests yet and a sign of his continuing deep popularity on the streets.

Protesters chanted "Anna, you keep fighting, we are with you," and "Hail mother India."

Hazare says the hunger strike, which involves not eating but drinking water, will continue until the government passes a tough anti-graft bill he champions.

But his insistence the government introduce this bill on Tuesday and pass it by the end of this month sparked criticism that his group was dictating policy to an elected parliament, and a leading member of Hazare's team appeared to reach for a compromise.

"We are in favor of discussion," Arvind Kejriwal told supporters on Sunday. "We want to ask the prime minister whom should we come to talk to, and when and where."

His statement came after one of India's foremost civil rights organizations, the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), said it would introduce its own anti-graft bill.

"I think Anna-ji is ill-advised ... anyone who says my view should be the only view is wrong," Aruna Roy, a member of the NCPRI and one of India's most famous social activists, was quoted by the local media as saying.

Hazare left jail on Friday to huge cheering crowds and widespread media coverage. He was briefly arrested on Tuesday, but then refused to leave jail until the government allowed him to continue his public fast for 15 days.

The activists' supporters say he will not fast to the death but a medical team is on hand to monitor his condition. Hazare has carried out scores of hunger strikes to pressure governments over social issues in the last few decades.

Hazare's campaign has struck a chord with millions of Indians, especially the expanding middle-class sick of endemic bribes, and has become a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as his government battles corruption scandals.

The Times of India on Sunday said that more than one million people had joined the newspaper's online anti-graft campaign, and local media said there were more than 500 protests across India on Friday, the day Hazare stepped out of jail.

But criticism of Hazare, who has evoked memories of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, appeared to increase.

"Team Anna's rhetoric is stopping to make sense," was the headline of the Mail Today on Sunday in an editorial that criticized Hazare's rush to get his bill passed.

Hazare on Sunday remained defiant, telling supporters that "it's time for another revolution."

The criticism came as Singh, widely seen as out of touch, won some praise on Saturday for saying he was open to dialogue - the first time in a week that his fumbling government appeared to have taken an initiative over the crisis.

In another sign of moves for a compromise, a ruling party lawmaker has sent Hazare's bill to a parliamentary committee for consideration, meeting a demand of the protesters.

Several scandals, including a telecoms bribery scam that may have cost the government up to $39 billion, led to Hazare demanding anti-corruption measures. But the government bill creating an anti-graft ombudsman was criticized as too weak as it exempted the prime minister and the judiciary from probes.

For many, the pro-Hazare movement has highlighted the vibrant democracy of an urban generation that wants good governance rather than government through regional strongmen or caste ties -- a transformation that may be played out in 2012 state polls that will pave the way for a 2014 general election.

A weak political opposition means that the government should survive the crisis, but it could further dim the prospect for economic reforms and hurt the Congress party in elections.

The main Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is organizing a nationwide protest against the government on Thursday, while a group of left parties is planning a national protest on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Rahesj Kumar Singh; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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