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Sibal eats crow on quota issue

The turbulence over quotas continues. Human resources development minister Arjun Singh has intrigued the political class by calling a press meet on Sunday, even as Cabinet colleague Kapil Sibal clarified that his remarks about excellence were not directed at the HRD ministry?s policy. It had nothing to do ?with either quota reservation or constitutional amendment,? he said.

india Updated: Apr 30, 2006 14:19 IST

The turbulence over quotas continues. Human resources development minister Arjun Singh has intrigued the political class by calling a press meet on Sunday, even as Cabinet colleague Kapil Sibal clarified that his remarks about excellence were not directed at the HRD ministry’s policy. It had nothing to do “with either quota reservation or constitutional amendment,” he said.

The timing of the two events is significant, coming in the wake of reports that Singh had, after Thursday’s cabinet meeting, strongly protested to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that ministers shouldn’t criticise their colleagues on issues that do not come under their purview. He did not, however, name Sibal, the science and technology minister.

But on Saturday, Sibal told a news agency from Tunis: “I have not talked about quota or reservation policy of the Government.... What I have said was that India must continue to have competitive edge because the world is looking towards it for high quality human resource.” He wondered how this could be against reservations, which has to be decided by the Cabinet. 

Besides, he said: “Excellence is not against reservation. You can achieve both things. You can have a reservation policy and still have excellence.” Clearly keen not to have any misunderstanding, he recalled he had  replied in the negative when asked at Hannover earlier this week if his references were directed at the reservation policy.

All eyes are now on Singh, with even veterans completely unaware of what the former Madhya Pradesh CM has up his sleeve.

Will he be part of the damage-containment exercise that Sibal's statement seemed to signify?  Or will it lead to a fresh controversy?

The more mundane explanation given out by the Singh camp — that there were many requests pending from scribes for an interaction — may well be true. But  then can the HRD Minister respond to questions on the reservation issue with the assembly elections on?

Only the other day, Singh  had told the agitating students he could not talk about the subject as the assembly elections were on.  And  if asked to respond to Sibal's comments, he would need to touch on quotas which, by his own admission, he cannot. 

The curiosity has also heightened because of accompanying political developments. One, a number of central ministers and senior leaders, including Mani Shankar Aiyar and Natwar Singh, have been speaking out of turn and creating controversies for the PM in the bargain. 

Second, when the reservation controversy was at its peak, JD (U) chief Sharad Yadav was the first leader to call on the HRD minister and back the proposal. He was also the first leader to react sharply to Sibal's remarks at Hannover by demanding the latter's ouster from the Cabinet.

If Yadav's responses added to the turbulence, so did Singh's Friday meeting with Natwar Singh, the former external affairs minister who also hit the headlines by attacking the PM on the Indo-US n-deal and dragging the Congress' name again into the Volcker controversy for which he is being probed. The Singh duo are said to share a bonding as members of the erstwhile Congress (T).

While the PMO and the AICC have kept a low profile on the issue, the debate continues, with the political class taking sides. Former PM V.P. Singh said his position on reservations remains unchanged (he announced the Mandal recommendations in 1990). In Rae Bareli, Rahul Gandhi took the middle path, maintaining it was a "complex matter" in which both sides have "valid points". 

Justice Party leader Udit Raj met the PM to urge him to implement reservation for OBCs in educational institutions. Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee urged protesting students to make efforts to find an "amicable solution" to burning issues.