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A new Gandhi? India graft activist leaves jail to begin his fast against corruption

A self-styled Gandhian campaigner who has become a symbol of popular outrage over endemic corruption in India left jail on Friday to carry on his protest fast.
Image: Indian social activist Anna Hazare waves towards his supporters as he leaves jail
Indian social activist Anna Hazare, in white, waves towards his supporters as he leaves Tihar Jail in New Delhi Friday.Sajjad Hussain / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A self-styled Gandhian campaigner who has become a symbol of popular outrage over endemic corruption in India left jail on Friday to carry on his fast after a beleaguered government caved in to huge protests across the country.

After three days in jail, the government has allowed Anna Hazare to stage a 15-day hunger strike. Hazare, who had been arrested earlier in the week and then ordered released, had refused to leave jail until he was allowed to fast publicly.

Hazare's exit was broadcast live across India as thousands of supporters thronged outside the jail in a deafening roar of celebration.

Just past the gates he addressed the crowd, raising his hand to the air and shouting "Victory to Mother India" before slowly winding his way in a truck decorated with flags through massive crowds.

The Times of India reported that Hazare warned his supporters that it would likely take a long time to end corruption in the country.

"After 64 years of independence, we still haven't achieved complete freedom," he said, according to the paper. "The fight is far from over, it has just begun."

Many supporters had been there overnight and some had offered prayers to the Hindu gods. Others chanted "the whole country is Anna."

'A new changed India'
A top Hazare aide said he would first go to a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and later travel to open grounds in central Delhi, where supporters were making final preparations for his fast.

"We have not seen this kind of thing in the last 60 years in India," said S.K. Sharma, 48, a company executive CEO, outside the jail as he waited for Hazare. "If this carries on in this way for the next four days, you will see a new changed India."

A fumbling official response has seen the Congress party-led government face one of the most serious protest movements since the 1970s, just the latest setback for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's second term that has paralysed policy making and economic reforms.

A medical team was on standby to monitor Hazare's health as he began his hunger strike in jail and a sharp deterioration could further worsen the crisis for the government, although his supporters say it is not a fast-to-death.

A weak political opposition means that the government should still survive the crisis, but it could further dim the prospect for economic reforms and hurt the Congress party in key state polls in 2012 that will pave the way for a general election in 2014.

Social networks spread protests
The protests across cities in India, helped spread by social networks, have not only rocked the ruling Congress party, they have sent shockwaves through the political class.

Students, lawyers, teachers, executives and civil servants have taken to streets in cities and remote villages stretching to the southern end of the country.

In the financial capital, Mumbai, the city's iconic lunch carriers, known as Dabbawallas, were reportedly set to go on strike in sympathy with Hazare.

One Facebook fan page for Hazare has more than 300,000 followers, while the India Against Corruption page on Facebook has more than 370,000 followers where links and messages of support are posted.

Several Twitter accounts have been set up by supporters to send out messages of where and when to protest.

Singh, 78, who is widely criticised as out of touch, dismissed the fast by Hazare as "totally misconceived" and undermining the parliamentary democracy.

Hazare, a long-time social activist who is often compared to independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, became the unlikely thorn in the side of the ruling coalition when he went on hunger strike in April.

He called off that fast after the government promised to introduce a bill creating an anti-corruption ombudsman.

The so-called Lokpal legislation was presented in early August, but activists slammed the draft version as toothless because the prime minister and judges were exempt from probes.