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Pawar joins slapgate club

New Delhi : Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar was on Thursday slapped by a 35-year-old man who claimed he was agitated over rising prices and corruption and inspired by Anna Hazare. The incident took place at the NDMC centre where Pawar had arrived as a chief guest for a function.

Harvinder Singh, a transporter from west Delhi’s Rohini, got through the meager security and landed a slap on the minister’s cheek, shouting "sab chor hain (all are thieves)".

Pawar lost his balance for a moment but regained his composure and made a quick exit.

Asked why he’d done it, Singh said, "Aur kya karoon, jab dekho… ghotala, ghotala, ghotala (what else do I do? There’s corruption everywhere)."

Singh had made a similar attempt on Saturday when he tried to attack former telecom minister Sukh Ram outside the Rohini court, after the latter’s sentencing in a bribery case.

The assault triggered instant reactions, echoing at a cabinet meeting here where ministers expressed anger and concern, and in the form of violent protests by Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party workers in Maharashtra.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke to Pawar and condemned the attack, as did Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The PM, his office said, "regrets the tendency to take recourse to violent means to express disagreement".

In Pune, Anna Hazare – a bitter critic of Pawar – added to the uproar by asking if the minister was slapped just once.

Congress leaders said BJP leader Yashwant Sinha’s statement on Wednesday – that there would be violence over price rise – may have incited the attacker.

"Strongly condemn… Yashwant Sinha’s statement, this incident, Anna’s reaction. Is there a connect?" asked Digvijaya Singh.

The farm minister, on his part, played down the incident, and asked his party workers to maintain peace.

"I don’t think it is appropriate for me to blame any political party for the incident."

There was a flurry of protests and incidents of violence across Maharashtra. More than 10 shops and a few vehicles were damaged in Pune. In Jalgaon district, a state transport bus was set ablaze.

Bandh was observed in Pawar’s home town of Baramati and in parts of Pune and Solapur district, from where the minister won the Lok Sabha elections. However, normalcy was restored by late evening everywhere.

In New Delhi, Sikhs marched in protest.

A joint team of the Delhi Police, Intelligence Bureau and Parliament security interrogated Harvinder Singh for over three hours.

"He told us he was inspired by Bhagat Singh and Anna Hazare and wants to eradicate corruption," an officer said.