Gandhian activist Anna Hazare was arrested and jailed on Tuesday before he could launch his indefinite fast for a strong anti-corruption legislation, triggering nationwide protests that drew tens of thousands and left the government floundering.
The widely condemned arrests of Hazare and his key associates crippled parliament as an otherwise divided opposition closed ranks.
With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) calling for nationwide protests on Wednesday, the authorities let go Hazare confidants Kiran Bedi and Shanti Bhushan in the evening.
"The reaction is tremendous all over India," said former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde in Bangalore, one of scores of cities that saw numerous small and big demonstrations in support of Hazare, a 74-year-old former soldier who has become the face of India's war on corruption.
"People are pouring out their anger. It is all spontaneous," said Hegde, whose scathing indictment of corruption led to the exit of Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa.
The day-long drama -- with street protests raging in many places even late in the evening -- began shortly after 7am when policemen in civilian clothes swooped on Hazare and activist Arvind Kejriwal as they stepped out of a middle class apartment in east Delhi.
They were to begin their hunger strike in violation of Delhi Police orders, for a strong lokpal bill in place of the government-sponsored one that excludes the prime minister, the judiciary and a mass of junior government officials from its purview.
Their detention sparked off the first angry response from a crowd outside the apartment complex, all of who had been planning, with Hazare, to march to Mahatma Gandhi's memorial Rajghat before heading to the JP Park in the heart of the city for the planned fast.
As hundreds blocked a main road, the police were stuck with Hazare and Kejriwal. Eventually he was taken to the police officers' mess in another part of the city and finally sent to jail after 3 p.m. when he refused to sign a bail bond.
Before being detained, Hazare -- aware that he could be arrested -- said in a recorded video message: "Don't let my arrest stop this movement. This is the nation's second struggle for freedom."
The message, repeatedly broadcast on television, had an electrifying effect.
In towns and cities across India, spontaneous protests erupted. Tens of thousands took to the streets shouting slogans against the government and hailing the Gandhian.
Many in the crowds waved Indian flags as well as banners and posters of all sizes -- expressed support for Hazare. The biggest shows of solidarity were reported from New Delhi and Mumbai.
Apart from major cities such as Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Lucknow and Ahmedabad, numerous big and small protests took place in Udaipur, Jammu, Selam, Bhopal, Surat, Rajkot, Patna, Guwahati, Raipur, Shimla, Mandi, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Bhiwani -- and many more.
The number of arrests quickly swelled to around 1,400 all over Delhi, by official admission. Activists, however, insisted that up to 5,000 had been detained.
Delhi Police, which said it arrested Hazare because it apprehended breach of peace, was accused of forcibly dumping many on the borders of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana in a bid to break the momentum of protests.
Senior ministers justified the arrest but sounded defensive.
Human resource development minister Kapil Sibal even suggested that Hazare could again talk to the government over the proposed lokpal bill.
Home minister P Chidambaram said 34 of 40 principles of Team Hazare had been accepted by the government during talks for drafting the lokpal bill, but added that insistence of the team that only their version of bill must prevail was not reasonable.
The ministers repeatedly denied that Delhi Police was acting under political pressure.
Celebrities too stepped in to verbalise their distress. Lyricist Javed Akhtar said: "I have had certain reservations about Anna's method but his arrest cannot be condoned. It is undemocratic, unacceptable."