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Quota chaos: Speak in unison

Debate over reservation has brought into the open conflicts within the Union Cabinet on the issue, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: May 01, 2006 22:59 IST

The debate over reservation of seats in institutes of excellence has brought into the open differences within the Union cabinet on this controversial subject. While it is understandable that in a large and vibrant democracy like ours, different points of view are bound to be articulated, when one cabinet minister takes on the other publicly, it does not speak well of the government. It is obvious that senior ministers are waiting to take convenient positions, keeping in mind the constituencies they represent. But in the expression of their views, what has also come into focus is the Prime Minister’s loosening grip over his colleagues.

Most political parties fell in line, supporting a constitutional amendment to facilitate reservations for OBCs. Everyone feared that opposing the move could cost them crucial votes. In fact, it was also the PM’s idea to have reservations through an enabling decision subsequently, an idea from which some of his advisors are trying to distance him now, given that the urban middle-classes are against such a move. But it is one commitment that the PM may find it difficult to distance himself from.

Knowing that the cabinet of a coalition government had no choice but to introduce reservations, HRD Minister Arjun Singh decided to take credit for it by making the intention public. In the process, he positioned himself as a leader who empathises with OBCs. His move was politically motivated, since it will help him rebuild his base in Madhya Pradesh, his home state, as also extend his influence to other areas. But many in his own party have questioned the wisdom of making the matter known when the cabinet is yet to put its official seal on the subject.

Ever since the impending decision became known, students have come out on the streets to lodge their protest. They strongly feel that the move would push merit to the background. In their perception, justice would be denied to the meritorious if the government seeks to introduce reservations in the name of social justice.

There are such strong arguments for both sides of the debate that it may be difficult to resolve the matter peacefully. If Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal came out openly in favour of those opposing reservations in institutes of excellence, he, too, had his constituency in mind -- the urban middle-classes, which, even in 1991, had opposed the implementation of the Mandal commission. Sibal is not the only one with this view -- there seems to be a clear division in the Union cabinet on the subject, though most ministers may accept the Arjun Singh formulation due to political considerations.

If Arjun Singh can be perceived to be guilty of making the intention known prematurely, Sibal can only be faulted for airing his views publicly when the matter has already generated a heated debate. But since it is not a cabinet decision yet, Sibal is free to express his views. But the sharp focus the issue has given to the differences within the cabinet should worry Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. This is not the first time that ministers in this government have spoken out of turn and without informing the PM, but it is a serious matter all the same.

In a parliamentary democracy, decisions are taken collectively by the government, and if there are disagreements on the subject with the Prime Minister, it is the minister concerned who usually gives way. This has happened in Britain and is equally applicable here. But it also depends on how assertive the Prime Minister is in ensuring that ministers do not wash their dirty linen in public. And in order to do so, he has to keep them on a tight leash.

The government’s major failure has been that ministers who have spoken or taken a view without consulting the PM have got away in the past. But this does not mean that everyone should start taking such a view. What will then happen to the thumb rule of running a government on the principle of collective responsibility. Already, instances of judicial activism getting the better of executive authority -- as had happened in PV Narasimha Rao’s time -- are becoming more pronounced. This happens only when executive assertiveness takes a back seat and a lot of such acts are allowed to slip by without taking proper action against defaulters.

The instances are not confined to Arjun Singh and Sibal alone. Sibal is a part of the government he is criticising on the reservation issue or on the demolitions in the capital. Singh, too, knows that till the cabinet gives its seal, his proposal will continue to remain a proposal. The views for and against should be expressed whenever a cabinet meeting takes place and once a final view is taken, then everyone must accept it. If differences still persist, the only option is to quit and wait for a better time.

Otherwise, what would be the difference between the present government and the one before it. What LK Advani had recently sought to do by raking up his opposition to the shameful Kandahar episode should not be repeated. Advani was as much a part of the decision as anyone else and if he had differences, he should have aired them publicly then and withdrawn himself from the government. But then, power is the greatest adhesive and he not only continued to hold on to his position but also became the deputy PM subsequently. But he has changed his position following the vehement opposition and annoyance expressed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In the present case, it is possible that the cabinet may be divided. If Arjun Singh had not taken a position on the issue, many Congress ministers may have had one view as against the other held by some of the allies whose OBC constituency will be strengthened once the cabinet nod is obtained. The Congress has little to gain from the subject since its greatest strength has been its ability to carry with it members of all communities. It is this that made it a party with the biggest mass support in this country. The OBC leadership has already evolved and unfortunately it is not in the Congress. So even while indulging in real politik, the Congress will emerge the loser on the issue. But maybe the party is prepared to make a sacrifice for its coalition partners in pursuance of observing the coalition dharma.

The issue has created unnecessary divisions in society and the coming days will witness scenes pitting excellence and merit on one side against affirmative action on the other. This is the biggest challenge before the Prime Minister, who should ensure that his ministers do not speak out of turn, at least publicly. Whatever the government decides must be communicated in one voice. Between us.