The televised arrest of social activist Anna Hazare and his refusal to leave Tihar Jail after the government decided to release him may turn out to be yet another setback for the Congress-led UPA government, fighting a perception battle and beleaguered by a series of corruption scandals.
The Hazare camp said the activist would leave the prison only if he is allowed to undertake his fast unconditionally.
A special executive magistrate remanded him to seven days' judicial custody and Hazare was lodged in Tihar jail but released after 12 hours at night.
The government's reasoning was that the right to protest is subject to reasonable restrictions and that Hazare's demand for acceptance of his version of lokpal was beyond constitutional parameters.
But this seems to have cut no ice with sections of the articulate urban public that hit the streets in several cities, raising slogans hailing the activist and flaying the government.
"Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isahi, Anna Tere Chaar Sipahi," shouted a protester in Delhi.
Parties ranging from the Shiv Sena to Marxist-Leninist groups showed uncommon unity in targeting the government.
"The government was trying to snatch away the people's right to protest and its ministers were trying to hide behind the men in uniform (police)," said leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley.
To defuse the crisis, the government decided Hazare should be released.
The final call was taken after a meeting of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and political secretary to the Congress president Ahmad Patel at the PM's residence around 7.30pm.
Mukherjee also spoke to home minister P Chidambaram.
A highly placed Congress functionary explained to HT: "We never expected that the custody will be for such a long duration. That will not serve any purpose. Secondly, we want Parliament to function."
The Opposition stalled proceedings in Parliament, demanding a statement from the PM.
Sources in the Delhi Police said they were instructed in the evening to inform the Tihar Jail authorities to prepare for Hazare's release, after it was decided to waive the bail bond conditions for the release.
Earlier in the day, Gandhi, Mukherjee and Chidambaram went into a huddle as the drama played out in aggressive television coverage. They were joined by urban development minister Kamal Nath.
The government's dilemma was best explained by Chidambaram: "It is a painful duty and we are performing it with the seriousness it deserves."
From Mayur Vihar to Tihar
From Mayur Vihar to Tihar
One arrest unites thousands
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