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Did Arjun Singh's quota gamble backfire?

By Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
May 19, 2006 17:19 IST
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Why did Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh raise the reservation issue that has so quickly and deeply divided India?

According to a senior member of the powerful Congress Working Committee -- the apex deicion making unit in the party -- Singh pushed the issue to suit his own goals.

"It is all about Singh's timing. The OBC (Other Backward Classes) quota in higher education is a law and everyone knows about it. There are many laws which are not implemented or debated. But his action at a terribly wrong time has vitiated the atmosphere and the image of the government," says the senior Congress leader. He added that non-stop coverage of the issue on television has aggravated the problem.

Complete coverage: The reservation issue

The Congress is a divided house on the issue.

Till earlier this year, Arjun Singh's fortunes in the party were on the wane. There was talk that he would be shunted to some state as governor.

What the 49.5% quota is all about

Last winter, when that possibility was discussed in the inner circles of the Congress, his supporters managed to stall the move by saying that Arjun Singh could be a candidate for the President's job when A P J Abdul Kalam retires next year.

The ambitious and experienced leader had to struggle for a nomination to the Rajya Sabha. He managed to play the loyalty card before Congress president Sonia Gandhi and finally got a nomination to contest the Rajya Sabha election on March 20, which helped him keep his ministerial job.

On April 6, at a National Council of Education Research and Training function he made a reference to the Constitutional amendment and said that necessary follow-up action was underway and a decision would be made after the assembly election.

Quota: A cure worse than the disease

While the Election Commission objected to his statement because it violated the Model Code of Conduct in force during the run-up to the assembly election in five states, Congress leaders were shocked because they saw it as Arjun Singh's masterstroke to monopolise the issue and one which could not be countered easily or openly.

While playing the reservation card, Arjun Singh's twin targets were his detractors in 10, Janpath, Sonia Gandhi's home, and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Arjun Singh apparently has a problem with Dr Singh's standing in India.

During a closed-door briefing where Dr Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee were present on India's nuclear agreement with the United States, Arjun Singh asked uncomfortable questions to National Security Advisor M K Narayanan making clear that he was against the deal.

Arjun Singh is trying to fill the slot within the Congress party, which can attract the 'anti-US, anti-globalisation' and 'Centre to Left' leaders, who are averse to Manmohan Singh's policies.

How reservations fracture Hindu society

This time he carefully selected a socially sensitive and politically explosive subject, which even Sonia Gandhi could not openly oppose.

At the same time, he knew that the reservation issue has already been passed by Parliament and only that the procedures needed to be codified.

By voicing the need to speed up the actual application of law he was trying to make himself relevant again in Sonia Gandhi's darbar.

Arjun Singh has many axes to grind. After securing six years in the House of Elders he has become impatient.

In May 2004, when the Congress came to power Arjun Singh, Ambika Soni, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel were regulars at 10, Janpath. Two years later only Patel remains close to the Congress president. Soni has been made a Cabinet minister and Azad is chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

Anti-reservation fire rages across India

Although it is debatable if Patel wields real power, Arjun Singh is unable to digest his own distance from 10, Janapath. Even Pranab Mukherjee's growing clout within the party has added to his political trauma.

Many Congressmen including Arjun Singh think that Mukherjee has teamed up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to run the country.

Arjun Singh thinks Mukherjee's cooperation with the prime minister has earned him prime position in more than three dozen committees and has helped him improve his stock with Sonia Gandhi.

In addition, Arjun Singh cites a report by Pulak Chatterjee, additional secretary in the Prime Minister's Office who monitors the implementation of the National Common Minimum Programme. The report, Arjun Singh claims, states that work related to the implementation of the reservation bill is pending.

Indirectly, Arjun Singh implied that the PMO and Sonia Gandhi, as chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance who directly monitors the National Common Minimum Programme, wanted him to fast-forward the quota issue and he is doing it.

Also, Arjun Singh gambled that if the reservation issue can polarise the OBCs and pro-reservationists in favour of the Congress he could make political capital. This looks unlikely now because of the crude landing of the otherwise politically profitable issue.

Just how many OBCs are there?

A fact that has helped Arjun Singh more than anything else is that the media did not report extensively the impact and potential repercussions of the issue when the amendment to the Constitution was passed in Parliament.

The law was passed on December 21 last year and the President's assent was acquired on January 20, 2006. The President signed the bill a fortnight after it was sent to him. According to reports, Prime Minister Singh visited Rashtrapati Bhavan to respond to the President's queries on the bill.

The letters to state governments to take necessary action were sent out on January 24. But more could not be done due to the Election Commission guidelines in force during the assembly election.

Many within the Congress feel they could have regained lost ground in Uttar Pradesh -- where an assembly election is scheduled next year -- if the issue have been launched at the right time and marketed well to that state's electorate.

However, one man's insecurity made him pick up the issue at the wrong time.

According to sources, Arjun Singh tried unsuccessfully to take Rahul Gandhi into confidence on the issue.

Now, the Congress will try to resolve the tensions caused by the issue and buy time by communicating better with the striking doctors. In the coming days, Congress leaders will give more sound bytes to pacify the anti-quota group.

Images: Doctors in arms

But it is clear that the party has lost its chance to make political capital out of the issue.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi