NEW DELHI — Two Indian anti-corruption campaigners drew thousands of cheering supporters to a protest Sunday to press the government to act against graft and bring back billions of dollars stashed overseas.
Yoga celebrity Baba Ramdev, wrapped in his trademark saffron robes, said he and social activist Anna Hazare would hold more protests through August "to bring back black money stashed abroad."
The subjects of corruption and its spoils being secreted out of India have riled a public reeling from rapid inflation, slowing growth and widespread malnutrition.
The protests, along with a string of high-profile scandals, have deeply embarrassed the government and sullied Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's image as an honest technocrat who helped spark India's growth by pushing to liberalize the economy in the 1990s. Instead, Singh has faced ever-louder opposition to the idea that capital gains by the country's richest will trickle down to benefit all.
"All we need is a corruption-free India," Ramdev told crowds of flag-waving supporters in Delhi park near Parliament, where he and Hazare also held a symbolic daylong fast.
Ramdev challenged Singh to review his team of ministers, saying "your personal honesty is not enough. You have to be politically honest, too. You have to keep your Cabinet honest."
The parliamentary affairs minister criticized the attacks on the "most revered" prime minister's office, and cautioned the activists against undermining anti-graft agencies set up "by our freedom-fighting forefathers."
"They have full freedom to voice concern against corruption," Harish Rawat said, according to Press Trust of India. "If they want to destroy the existing institutions, then the country will not accept it."
Ramdev and Hazare, who separately held several hunger strikes last year, have managed to focus national attention – and ire – against a corruption so entrenched that bribes are routine for most government services from registering a marriage to getting a driver's license or securing a child's place in school.
Their demand for legislation to crack down on government corruption led to a bill now being debated in Parliament. In recent weeks, they have called for an investigation into Singh and other officials over alleged revenue losses worth billions of dollars through the underpricing of coal assets. Federal investigators said Friday they were looking into the claims.
Hazare on Sunday urged India's youth toward social service, crediting his own anti-graft campaigning in Maharashtra state over 25 years with getting hundreds of bureaucrats sacked.
What the government can actually do to retrieve money stashed abroad is unclear. There are no firm figures for how much has been sent overseas by those seeking to avoid taxes or hide ill-gotten gains.
The Washington-based Global Financial Integrity institute says $104 billion had been stashed abroad as of December, while another study by a former International Monetary Fund economist put the number around $213 billion – worth at least $462 billion today based on estimates for conservative investment returns. That 2010 report, by economist Dev Kar, also noted the outgoing flows increased after India opened its markets, with an average of $16 billion sent abroad each year from 2002-2006.
A government report last month, however, gave no total estimates, saying Swiss banks provide the only information on Indians holding cash abroad, with less than $2 billion in Swiss accounts in 2010. Opposition lawmakers said the report was hiding more than it revealed.
Meanwhile, the government has faced a slew of corruption allegations from the murky sale of cell-phone licenses to the hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
In March, it was hit by a leaked auditor's report suggesting up to $210 billion in potential revenues were lost as coal assets were sold cheaply without a competitive bidding process. India's Central Bureau of Investigation has opened a preliminary investigation, but estimated the potential losses over 2006-2009 at below $20 billion.
Singh has said he will resign if there is any truth to the claims of impropriety.
At the Delhi protest Sunday, there were rumors of spats between the Hazare and Ramdev camps, which the two activists dismissed. Some of Hazare's aides had objected to teaming up with Ramdev for the protests, as the yoga celebrity himself faces corruption charges. The black-bearded Ramdev, who advocates the death penalty for corrupt officials, insists he is innocent.