Huge crowds at Camp Anna; Prime Minister calls high-level meet

New Delhi: The 35,000 people that gathered this evening at Anna Hazare's mass-protest against corruption were given a simple message by the activist's aides: come again, and bring others. "Let us all pray for Anna," said Kiran Bedi, "and come and hear what we have to say."

From Ramlila Maidan, now serving as Anna's base camp, the twin sights of the 74-year-old lying on stage six kilos lighter since his hunger strike began, and the constant high tide of supporters that come to see him telegraphed the dire need for an intervention by the government. (Read: Who is Anna Hazare?) | (Read: What is Jan Lokpal Bill?)

At his home, the Prime Minister met with senior colleagues to evaluate the government's options, given that Anna has refused to bend. He said this morning that he will not end his fast till his version of the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill is cleared by Parliament. Sources say a more private message from Anna's core group to the government specified that he wants a senior minister, the Prime Minister or Rahul Gandhi to lead discussions for a possible truce with the activists.

The government spent the day stressing that it is open to discussions with Anna and his advisors. Speaking at IIM Calcutta, the Prime Minister said he's open to "a reasoned debate" on the Lokpal Bill. However, he stressed "The creation of the Lokpal as an institution will help. But it will not solve the problem... speedy trials and timely judgements will do a great deal to discourage corruption." (Read: Govt open to talks, PM reiterates)

The government's version of the Bill, introduced earlier this month in Parliament, has been attacked by Anna and other critics as weak and calibrated to protect politicians and other public servants accused of graft. The Bill is being scrutinized by a Parliamentary committee headed by Rajya Sabha Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi. The Standing Committee working on the Bill, he said today, can alter the draft it has received by as much as 80 per cent. (Read: The Standing Committee looking into the Lokpal Bill)

The writing on the wall is easy to read. The government wants to end the stand-off with Team Anna, but doesn't want to act in haste. Till last evening, it was sending informal feelers to Ramlila Maidan via Umesh Chandra Sarangi, a senior bureaucrat from Maharashtra and spiritual leader Bhaiyyu Maharaj. Both men are from Anna's home state of Maharashtra and know the activist well.

But sources say Team Anna has made it clear that discussions with the government have to reflect the complex stature of a nationwide crisis; so a top minister, Dr Manmohan Singh or Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi need to meet them at the negotiating table.

The Lokpal Bill - or even a condensed version of its main features - is not what is drawing the thousands of housewives, students and office-goers. Most people say they have run out of patience with systematic graft; it is corruption in public offices at all levels that people are tired of battling in everyday life. In Anna and his protest, they have found a channel for their frustration. There is an unofficial dress code at Ramlila Maidan which pairs "I am Anna" t-shirts with the Gandhi topi that Anna is rarely seen without. The chorus rings out periodically as the crowd churns: "Anna, tum sangharsh karo, hum tumhaare saath hain (Anna, you keep up the fight, we are with you)."

Arvind Kejriwal, a member of Anna's core team, said today that the activists' aim is not to destabilise the government. He also denied allegations that by asking people to protest outside the homes of ministers and MPs, he is inciting hooliganism. "We have simply asked people to protest peacefully," clarified Mr Kejriwal. Countering charges that Anna's movement is undermining Parliament and its right to legislate, Mr Kejriwal said, "What is democracy? It is not just voting once every five years and handing over your destiny to representatives. It is day-to-day engagement with your representatives." (Read: Hooliganism charges against us false, says Kejriwal)

In Delhi today, a small group of people protested at the residence of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit; in Mumbai, a similar demonstration outside the home of Congress MP Priya Dutt provoked an unexpected response. "I'm in favour of a strong anti-corruption bill," Ms Dutt said. She also backed Anna's demand for the Lokpal Bill to cover both senior judges and the Prime Minister. Both have been excluded from the government's draft. (Watch: Congress MPs offer support for Anna)