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Indian PM 'open' to talks as anti-graft strike enters 5th day

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
  • NEW: India's prime minister says he would like a "broad national consensus"
  • Activist Anna Hazare is holding a hunger strike as part of an anti-corruption protest
  • Campaigners say they want tougher legislation to deal with graft Indians face
  • The Jan Lokpal bill is a civil society-backed version of the government's Lokpal bill

New Delhi (CNN) -- As Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare's hunger strike entered a fifth day Saturday, the country's prime minister extended an olive branch, saying his government was open to talks aimed at creating a "strong and effective" citizen ombudsman.

"We are open to discussions," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters. "We would like a broad national consensus to emerge on the Lokpal bill. ... There is a lot of scope of give and take."

"Lokpal" in Hindi means "citizen ombudsman."

Anti-corruption activists have rejected legislation prepared by the federal government to create a citizen ombudsman, saying the Lokpal bill -- now in parliament -- is too weak to tackle endemic graft in the system.

Led by Hazare, the activists have been demanding a stronger institution that they say will tackle corruption Indians encounter in their daily lives. With widespread red tape and archaic laws, they say, bribery involving police, and tax and food officials, have become rampant.

Some Indian leaders have also said corruption is deeply entrenched in the system.

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Singh, however, noted that it was hard to set a timeline for legislating.

"There (are) dynamics in the legislative process, and it takes time for a bill to be passed," he said. He requested cooperation from "all thinking segments of Indian public opinion to ensure that the end product is a strong and effective (citizen ombudsman) which all sections of our community want."

The Indian leader earlier had been uncompromising as he warned the country's parliament Wednesday that Hazare's mode of protest was "fraught with grave consequences."

Singh's comments Saturday came after Hazare vowed to fast until an alternate version of the bill -- called the Jan (public) Lokpal bill -- passes.

The Jan Lokpal bill calls for bringing members of lower bureaucracy, the judiciary and prime ministers under the purview of a proposed watchdog. It is backed by members of civil society, but has not been accepted in full by the government.

"We will not leave until the government gets us the Jan Lokpal bill," Hazare told supporters.

He began the public phase of his hunger strike in the country's capital Friday, accompanied by thousands of cheering followers.

"I have stated this to the government several times earlier what you all have been saying -- that the government has gone deaf and dumb," Hazare told supporters Friday, according to CNN sister network CNN-IBN. "Until Jan Lokpal bill is passed ... (I) will continue my fast as long as I am alive."

The 74-year-old campaigner left the jail in New Delhi on Friday and traveled to the city's large Ramlila Grounds in an open-top truck decorated with Indian flags.

Before arriving at Ramlila Grounds -- known mostly as a venue for massive political rallies, demonstrations and religious festivals -- the activist visited the shrine to Mahatma Gandhi, the man who led the nation's independence struggle, to pay homage.

Once at Ramlila Grounds, Hazare sat on a makeshift podium with a large Gandhi backdrop as crowds hailed his arrival.

Addressing the people, he called his campaign India's "second fight for independence."

"We got independence in 1947, and the white (the British rulers) left our country. But there's no end to corruption, crime and looting. This is now our second fight for independence. Whether or not I live, this fight will go on," Hazare said.

Supporters see the elderly anti-corruption crusader as a second Gandhi. His hunger strikes are also modeled after the protest mode Gandhi used in his movement against the colonial rule that ended in 1947.

However, Indian leaders say Hazare's demands undermine democracy through his use of a protest tactic Gandhi used in very different circumstances.

On Wednesday, Singh told parliament, "I acknowledge that Shri (Mr.) Anna Hazare may be inspired by high ideals in his campaign to set up a strong and effective Lokpal. However, the path that he has chosen to impose his draft of a bill upon parliament is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our parliamentary democracy."

Hazare was sent to jail Tuesday because he planned to stage his strike at a different public place without official permission, police said.

But as support swelled for the activist, with thousands hitting the streets in Indian cities, authorities ordered his release within hours of his arrest.

However, Hazare refused to depart the jail until police agreed to allow him to stage his hunger strike in the open air as planned.

The protesters' call has sparked a debate in India over the role of democratic institutions. Hazare's arrest also prompted televised discussions over the right to protest.