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Arjun?s cache of trouble

The HRD Minister's recent actions do not appear to be consistent with his claim, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: May 17, 2006 02:29 IST

Though HRD minister Arjun Singh has dismissed allegations that he was being driven by a “personal agenda” on the reservations issue, his actions over the past month-and-a-half do not appear to be consistent with his claim.

Right or wrong, the perception is that the minister — known for his political astuteness and foresight — wants to use the contentious subject to further his own political ambitions, even if it means creating problems for his own party.

Singh is correct when he states that the government is committed to the implementation of the constitutional amendment that provides quota for OBCs in elite educational institutions. But it is the hurry and persistence with which he has taken up the matter that has made his colleagues and rivals suspicious. The minister has kept the pot boiling and at every available opportunity, has made statements that seek to identify him with the cause of OBCs.

He should know. The 2003 election in his home state of Madhya Pradesh was all about that OBC factor. The BJP romped home because Uma Bharti had turned the polls into an OBC versus forward castes issue, not because of what BJP leaders attribute to the BSP (Bijli Sadak Pani) factor.

Some of Singh’s colleagues think he has spoken out of turn on the subject even before the Union Cabinet or the UPA had taken a collective decision on both the quantum of quota and the timing of the implementation.

His first comment came on April 5 when he told some newspersons, “We have decided to adopt the Mandal commission mode of 27 per cent reservations for OBCs in all central government funded institutions. Our decision cannot be announced because of the elections''.

He knew that any comment on this highly emotive subject was likely to hit headlines and attract the notice of the Election Commission – and it did. With his defiant stand, Singh also ensured that he emerged as someone who was single-handedly favouring reservations and that in questioning him, the Election Commission had probably tried to curb his enthusiasm. As expected, his stance unleashed a debate with supporters of the merit criteria coming out openly against the move.

Having identified himself with the OBC cause, Singh fired his next salvo by attacking the RSS out of the blue. His attack was interpreted in political circles as his eagerness to identify himself with minorities, something he was unable to do when he failed to resign after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 while he was a minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government.

Singh may be moving step by step. But his actions leave no ambiguity about his possible intentions. His actions and speech have embarrassed the Prime Minister who has not spoken a word on the subject so far. The first indication of what the government plans to do was provided by the Defence Minister when on Monday, he said that an amicable solution would soon be worked out.

The HRD minister is also aware that the issue has already led to mass protests and the first attempt by those in the government should be to defuse the situation. But it is clear that the matter is being allowed to precipitate.

Though the Congress, like other parties, helped pass the constitutional amendment, its greatest strength has been its ability to look at matters without bringing in castes, religion and race.

The reservation is unlikely to help the party since the OBC leadership has already evolved outside the Congress fold. Singh is not naive and knows this. Then why is he bent upon keeping the issue alive? Is he looking for support both within and outside the UPA? And is there more than what meets the eye?

First Published: May 17, 2006 02:29 IST