After nine days of fasting, the Team Anna, as the Indian anti-graft activist Anna Hazare and his supporters are known, has decided to call off its indefinite hunger strike Friday and has floated a proposal to form a "political alternative" as an answer to an "unresponsive" government.
"There is nothing wrong with forming a party...we need to provide an alternative to the people," Hazare said amid a sea of supporters at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi Thursday.
Team Anna's decision to enter politics, a turnaround from its earlier stance to stay apolitical, has sparked heated debates among the political class as well as the public.
Ruling Congress party leader and Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni was quick to react, saying: "Everyone in public life has right to join politics."
"You can't hold the government to ransom like that," she said. "I am glad they will end fast. Some of us always felt they were inching towards active politics. They'll understand obligations and constraints."
Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which the government claimed was covertly backing the Team Anna, said it "welcome(s) this decision (to form a political party)."
"Firstly, it is good that they are calling off their fast," BJP spokesperson Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said. "They need to be healthy to carry on any movement. In a democracy, the option of entering politics is an available to everyone. We welcome this decision. BJP will support any movement that is against corruption."
Opposition Communist Party of India -Marxist (CPI-M) leader Nilotpal Basu was one among the few political commentators and leaders who explicitly disparaged the anti-graft movement going political. "Don't want to give too much importance to Team Anna. Already they have got too much attention from the media," Basu said.
Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh, while welcoming Team Anna's decision, also hinted that it was only a matter of time before the patrons of the Gandhian methods of protest entered the world of electoral politics.
"I welcome Anna's decision to end their fast to create a political alternative which is the only way in a healthy democracy. Didn't I predict?" said Singh.
Hazare's critics said this was possibly the only way to end a hunger strike without giving the impression that the anti-corruption movement had failed to elicit any reaction from the government and even from some sections of the media.
Hazare began his fifth hunger strike in 16 months Sunday to pressurize the government to set up an anti-graft agency and tougher laws to abate the unbridled corruption in India.
The low turnout at Ramlila Maidan, New Delhi, where Anna's associates started an indefinite fast last Thursday, was a far cry from the euphoria and massive crowds that marked the beginning of Hazare's protests more than a year ago. However, as Hazare began the fast Sunday, thousands of people turned up to lend support.
Hazare, a 75-year-old former army truck driver, who adopted the same means of protest as Mahatma Gandhi, had mobilized the masses, who were fuming over a series of corruption scandals, including the $4 billion that disappeared during the 2010 Commonwealth Games and a 3G spectrum licensing scandal that is estimated to have incurred a loss of $36 billion in revenue for the government.
The Team Anna had earlier said that the protests would continue till the government accepted its version of the Jan Lokpal Bill to establish an anti-corruption body.
The Jan Lokpal Bill or the Citizen's Ombudsman Bill is an anti-graft proposal drawn up by prominent civil society activists seeking the appointment of a Jan Lokpal, an agency similar to the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, which will have complete autonomy in investigating corruption cases.
"In hindsight, it can be said that the 2012 version of the Anna Hazare movement was designed to spectacularly fail in achieving its avowed goal," columnist Ajaz Ashraf wrote in The Hindu.
"Not even the incorrigible optimist believed the indefinite fast of Team Anna at Jantar Mantar could compel the UPA government to institute a probe into the corruption charges leveled against 14 Union Ministers and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh," Ashraf wrote.
Team Anna Thursday called on the public to respond within 48 hours on whether they should form a political party.
The movement Hazare fronts, India Against Corruption (IAC), has launched a poll on social networking sites and on its website to gather feedback. In an ongoing poll on the IAC site, about 90 percent of the total votes cast, is in favor of Team Anna floating a political party. In a similar poll currently active on the New Delhi Television (NDTV) site, about 77 percent of the total votes cast, supports the idea of Hazare's political party.
A group of civil society figures, including Justice Santosh Hegde and former Army Chief General VK Singh, wrote to Anna earlier Thursday urging him to end the fast. "Unfortunately, the political establishment has not cared to listen, let alone respond, to this voice," the letter said.
"The government has not only stonewalled these demands, it has also demonstrated little political will to bring the guilty of big scams to book. The opposition fares no better on this score. To the citizens it appears that both the government and opposition, indeed the entire political establishment of this country, have let the common citizen of this country down."
However, Hegde, an Anna supporter, expressed his opposition to Team Anna floating a political party.
"Anna Hazare has championed the cause against corruption. Of course, people hate corruption, but then that hatred does not convert into votes," Hegde said Friday in a media interview. "I do not think they have experience in the political field. One needs to swim in the muck to be successful in politics and I don't think they have the expertise to do so."
"A bigger worry will be the choice of candidates. There will be people with vested interests who will want to nurture their political ambitions. The very purpose of the movement will be lost then," he said.
Echoing the reservations, columnist Ashraf wrote: "Having announced its electoral ambitions, Team Anna now faces the gargantuan task of positioning itself in the political space."