Prime Minister Manmohan Singh struck a conciliatory note towards Anna Hazare on Saturday, emphasising that the government was open to "discussion and dialogue" with the social activist who is on an indefinite fast to demand introduction of the Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament.
Anna Hazare checks his watch as he sits on the stage during his hunger strike against corruption in New Delhi.
Singh's offer for dialogue was the first since Hazare stopped eating more than 100 hours ago, on the morning of August 16, and spent three nights in Tihar jail before moving to Ramlila Maidan on Friday.
"There is a lot of scope for give and take… We are open to discussion and dialogue… We would like a broad national consensus to emerge," the PM said after a Planning Commission meeting, where measures to improve delivery systems to address the public perception of corruption were also discussed.
But he stressed there were difficulties in limiting the legislative process, "which takes time to get over", a clear message to Team Anna that its August 30 deadline was unrealistic.
Including the PM under the Lokpal Bill is one crucial provision on which the government can relent. The BJP — whose support will be essential to see the Lokpal Bill through Rajya Sabha — has demanded that the Lokpal cover the PM too.
"We must all work together to push for a strong and effective Lokpal and whatever obstacles come in the way, we should remove them," Singh said.
Team Anna responded to Singh's suggestion within hours. Arvind Kejriwal, viewed by the government as a hardliner in the Anna camp, said they weren't against dialogue.
"Who should we meet, where should we meet and when should we meet," he asked.
A minister said the Anna camp should decide who they wanted to speak with.
"If they want to talk to ministers, they can do it… Or they can meet the standing committee on the bill again," the minister said, hinting that the PM's reference to dialogue echoed the government's stated position.
"We have been saying all along that the government is ready to talk. But it can't be on the principle of 'our bill or no bill'," a senior minister said, a reference to Team Anna's demand that their version of the Lokpal Bill be put before Parliament.
Government managers, however, hinted they weren't in a hurry and first wanted a clear assessment of whether the protests across the country would taper out after the long weekend.
There is a strong view in the government that this is a distinct possibility, prompting the Congress core group to adopt a wait-and-watch approach before putting any offers on the table. The government is also awaiting the outcome of the back-channel talks — a Maharashtra economist and a political activist are the go-between — that have been initiated.