NEW DELHI (AP) — Tens of thousands of Indians shouting patriotic slogans massed at a New Delhi fairground Thursday to support a charismatic yoga guru’s anti-corruption hunger strike.
Baba Ramdev said he would not eat for three days to pressure the government to bring back billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains — so-called black money — stashed in foreign banks.
The protest comes less than a week after a similar protest by anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare failed to attract the huge crowds that had turned out a year ago. With national attention fading, Hazare ended his protest and his supporters said they would give up agitating and form a political party instead.
Supporters jammed traffic across the city as they walked to the sprawling Ramlila grounds and buses from nearby states converged on the capital. About 20,000 people pledged their support for Ramdev’s campaign to wipe out tax evasion and endemic corruption in India.
Squatting on the ground and fanning themselves with bits of cardboard in the sweltering monsoon heat, supporters cheered as Ramdev, wearing saffron robes, spoke.
“I am not against any political party. My protest is only to end black money and to bring back to this country what rightfully belongs to the people of India,” he announced from a 20-foot high platform constructed at the end of a vast tent.
Though poor acoustics made it difficult to hear Ramdev, his supporters were unfazed, saying they already knew what he stood for.
“He is our hope for the future. He will save this country from the politicians,” said Amulya Kumar, a farm laborer from Bihar, who was holding a small bundle of clothes and food.
Along with his teenage nephew, Kumar had traveled two days by train from Bihar’s poverty-stricken Munger district for the rally.
Millions of Indians tune in every day to watch Ramdev perform yoga exercises on his popular TV show. In the past few years he has transformed his popularity as a yoga guru to highlight his campaign against corruption.
In a rousing speech Thursday, he outlined his demands: a robust ombudsman law to keep checks on government, a strong and independent Central Bureau of Investigation and efforts to act against tax evasion and illegal money sent to banks abroad.
Middle class Indians fed up with corruption had flocked to Hazare’s protest last year, which Ramdev also supported. But the government dragged its feet on his demand for an ombudsman and political apathy among many wealthier Indians sapped his movement of its support.
Ramdev’s support, however, comes from the far more politically active rural poor, angry that they have not benefited as promised from the country’s economic rise in recent years.
Security was tight at the protest. Police squads patrolled the periphery of the grounds and paramilitary soldiers scrutinized visitors as they were scanned by metal detectors to enter the grounds.
Thousands of young volunteers in white T-shirts with Ramdev’s image printed on it helped manage the swelling crowds, shepherding people into roped enclosures erected to prevent stampedes. They distributed bottles of water to the thousands of elderly supporters, while ambulances and firefighters kept watch.
An army of volunteers prepared vats of spicy potato curry and deep-fried bread in a vast makeshift kitchen set up to provide free lunch to the protesters.