New Delhi: With his crusade against corruption emerging as a virtual tsunami in the country, Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare on Thursday stepped up his campaign, spurning Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s appeal to end his fast.
"I thank Sonia Gandhi for her statement (appealing to him to end the fast). Soniaji, tell the government to get the Lokpal Bill enacted at the earliest," Hazare said in a terse reaction to Gandhi`s appeal.
Addressing thousands of young and old at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, Anna Hazare who began his fast Tuesday, said he would not eat till the government gave a role to the civil society in drafting a stringent Lokpal Bill.
"My fast will continue till there is life in my body," he told a swelling crowd at the protest venue here in the heart of the city.
His assertion ignited emotive cries of `Joh kabhi nahi haare, Woh Anna Hazare!` (One who never loses is Anna Hazare) and "Bharat Mata ki Jai!"
The venue was full of slogan shouting crowds pledging their support. Cries of "Vande Mataram" and patriotic songs filled the air.
Anna Hazare`s refusal to back off followed the failure of two rounds of talks, Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal held with activists Arvind Kejriwal and Swami Agnivesh on Thursday.
The two points of disagreement were the legal status of the panel and who will head it. The government wants Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to lead it while activists want Anna Hazare.
"We had a very constructive dialogue. The broad parameters are generally agreed upon... We want Anna Hazare to give up the fast. We will be meeting tomorrow (Friday)," Sibal said.
Cabinet Secretary KM Chandrasekhar was also present in the meeting.
In the morning talks, the government agreed to the activists` demand for constituting the committee with five members each from both the sides but there was no agreement on a formal notification to constitute it and on the demand that Hazare should head it.
There was confusion even in Hazare`s camp. Agnivesh, Kejriwal and the assembled gathering demanded that Hazare should be made the Chairman but the Gandhian himself said he would just like to be a member of the committee which can be headed by a retired judge.
Meanwhile, Karnataka Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde, when asked about his differences with civil society members on some provisions of the anti-graft bill, said he had opposed inclusion of the judiciary in the proposed legislation.
"I was not very sure constitutionally whether this was permissible,” said Hegde.
He said he also differed with civil society on the quantum of the sentence in the bill.
"They wanted the sentence to be increased to life imprisonment. I was not very comfortable with that".
Justice Hegde said while he fully backed Hazare`s anti-corruption campaign, "because I am holding a statutory post, I can`t get down to the road and follow him".
By evening, Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, stepped in pleading the Gandhian to end his protest.
"I am pained by Anna Hazareji`s fast unto death," she said in a statement. She promised that his demand for a war on corruption would be given "full attention" by the government.
"There can be no two views on the urgent necessity on combating graft and corruption in public life," she added.
But the statement had no effect on Anna Hazare`s resolve as he vowed to continue his campaign that has ignited solidarity rallies all over the country.
As the evening passed, at least 300 people joined in fasting at Jantar Mantar.
In Agra and Delhi, people took out candlelight marches. Over 5,000 people gathered at India Gate to show support to the fasting Gandhian.
"We don`t want any corrupt people in India," said Sheela Agarwal, 75. Four-year-old Shalini watched the rally with amazement on her father`s shoulders.
Indians settled in foreign countries also took out protest marches to end corruption which is rampant in their native country.
But two days of fasting was beginning to tell on the 72-year-old social reformer.
Doctors said his blood pressure was slightly high and he had lost weight. But the feisty leader appeared unperturbed. He addressed the media and constantly waved to the sea of supporters.
But with the sun beating down, some fell unconscious. Doctors at the site quickly attended to them while some were taken to nearby hospital.
Anna Hazare asserted: "I am just a little weak, otherwise am fine... I can continue like this for at least another seven days." He sipped water frequently.
Political parties voiced support for Anna Hazare but he has refused to let them hijack his movement.
Bharatiya Janata Party`s (BJP) Prakash Javedakar said: "The BJP agrees with the essence of the demand and the Gandhian way of protest. That`s why we have supported him."
BJP`s Sushma Swaraj tweeted support and said: "We demand that the government should convene an all party meeting on the issue."
In Mumbai, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray said the government was not scared of the fast but of the "public anger" it had aroused.
Bollywood, which normally steers away from political issues, came out in support of Anna Hazare, an iconic figure in Maharashtra.
Hrithik Roshan tweeted: "I support Anna Hazare. It’s TIME to make a CHANGE!"
Director Madhur Bhandarkar met Anna Hazare to tell him that the entire film industry supported his crusade.
Even Gopal Dass, who returned to India Thursday after spending 27 years in a Pakistani prison, told journalists at the border that India needed Anna Hazare.
"This India is not that of Mahatma Gandhi. This is the India of scams and corruption," he added.
With PTI & IANS inputs