New Delhi - Rahul Gandhi, widely seen as India's prime minister-in-waiting, waded Friday into a government standoff with a fasting anti-graft activist, saying his tactics threatened India's democratic "life force."
In a combative address to India's parliament, Congress party leader Gandhi - the scion of India's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty - praised activist Anna Hazare's anti-corruption message but challenged his efforts to bend parliament to his will.
"Individuals have brought our country great gains. They have galvanised people in the cause for freedom... however we must not weaken the democratic process," Gandhi said.
"A process divorced from the machinery of an elected government, that seeks to undo checks and balances created to protect the supremacy of parliament, sets a dangerous precedent for our democracy."
It was Gandhi's first public statement on an issue that has snowballed into a full-blown crisis for the government, with huge protests across India in support of Hazare's campaign.
The 74-year-old Hazare has said he will fast until parliament adopts and passes his own version of a new anti-corruption bill that would create the post of a national ombudsman to monitor senior politicians and bureaucrats.
In his speech, Gandhi, 41, suggested that allowing any campaign - no matter how popular its target - to dictate legislation to parliament would set the country on a slippery path.
"Tomorrow the target may be something less universally heralded. It may attack the plurality of our society and democracy," he said.
"India's biggest achievement is our democratic system. It is the life force of our nation," he added.
The timing and tone of Gandhi's intervention was significant.
In recent days, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who sat beside Gandhi as he spoke, has sought to reach out to Hazare with a series of conciliatory gestures aimed at bringing the hunger strike to an end.
A deal seemed to be at hand when Singh secured parliament's agreement to open a debate Friday on the activist's demands.
However, the move hit an immediate obstacle when Hazare refused to give a written undertaking that he would end his fast - now in its 11th day - as soon as the debate began.
Hazare's campaign leaders said he would only call off his protest when parliament adopted -- rather than merely discussed - a resolution containing his core proposals for the "Lokpal" (Ombudsman) Bill.
Hazare, who has only drunk water since August 16, has lost around 6.5 kilos (14 pounds).
Although he has appeared energetic and alert when addressing supporters, doctors say they are concerned over his blood pressure and weight loss.
Gandhi sits on a panel running the ruling Congress Party's daily affairs in the absence of his mother and party president, Sonia Gandhi, who has had surgery in the United States for an unspecified medical condition.
His nomination to the panel was seen as another step towards his eventual assumption of the premiership and Friday's speech was an opportunity to lay out his leadership credentials.
But some observers said his remarks could backfire.
"The government and the party are confused - playing hard and soft on Hazare," said political analyst Parsa Venkateshwar Rao.
"And Rahul's speech isn't going to bring them any brownie points at a time when the tide of public sympathy is with Hazare," Rao said.
The veteran activist is staging his protest in a large open-air venue in Delhi where huge, flag-waving crowds have gathered each day to show their support.
At the beginning of his campaign, the government had taken a tough line, initially arresting Hazare and several thousand of his supporters in a move widely criticised as repressive and short-sighted.