Political passions

The protests on the street over the reservation issue have spilled out of the inner corridors of power

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

Just couple of weeks before the results to the elections to five federal units were announced, there were angry murmurs emanating from the supporters of Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Arjun Singh. They were angry over the manner in which the Election Commission (EC) had chosen to issue a notice to their leader for announcing reservations for other backward castes (OBCs) in higher educational institutions even when the electoral process was on. The EC contended that Arjun Singh’s announcement was violative of the code of conduct as it could influence the voting in the areas where the elections were to take place. What really upset the HRD minister and his supporters further was the way in which the Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal earlier considered to be close to the HRD minister, criticised the reservation proposal by insisting that precedence should be given to merit. “We know who is behind the attack against Arjun Singh and EC’s pro-activism,” claimed a confidante of the HRD minister. “Let the results of the assembly elections be declared and then we will see.”

Arjun Singh’s reply to EC was unrepentant. Expectedly, the commission was not satisfied by his response and claimed that the HRD minister had indeed violated the code of conduct. HRD minister was unfazed even as he became bugbear of a middle class that has begun to take cues for its political response from the television news channels that try to keep alive the spirit of the film Rang de Basanti. The corrupt Defence Minister of the silver screen transmogrifies into the figure of Arjun Singh in real life and drama gave energy to the spreading protests. Doctors, interns, engineers, students, traders, joined the swelling ranks of demonstrators. Cries of “do not try to divide India” accompanied very casteist displays of politics. An invisible hand drove the Indian middle class to show its position. It worked the channels, took the pictures and wrote the columns. Quota supporters allege that the agitation had official blessings. It was as if the intense power struggle going on within the Congress, if not the entire United Progressive Alliance (UPA) moved into the public through the electronic and print media, and thereon on to the streets of urban India.

Backstage, charges flew, with accusations being levelled even at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for masterminding the opposition to reservations. Even the trenchant comments of industrialist Ratan Tata, who heads the PM’s advisory committee on industry, were ascribed to the PMO.

Arjun Singh and his supporters strategically leveraged the quota issue to build strong alliances with the UPA allies and broaden Congress’s social constituency, rescuing it from its upper-caste stranglehold. It is not known whether this stroke was of Arjun Singh’s own volition or if were the outcome of a Congress leadership decision. From media reports it would appear that the prime minister was not consulted by the HRD ministry on this move to bring in reservations in the higher educational institutions like Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and post-doctoral courses in medicine.

If Arjun Singh’s declamations are anything to go by then after an enabling constitutional amendment for reservations was passed by the parliament in December 2005 then it was a matter of time that the quota were announced for the OBCs. Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh were kept in the loop as this was also a promise made in the common minimum programme (CMP). Insiders claim that a letter written by a senior PMO official to Sonia Gandhi informing her about the CMP promise for quotas for backward castes was used by HRD Minister Arjun Singh to push it. “The issue was never discussed at any level. Neither the government or the party was informed about it,” claimed a cabinet minister to Hardnews. Sonia Gandhi as party president did not take a clear stand on the issue when a senior Congress leader took up the issue of reservations with her, according to sources.

 

Arjun Singh knew that the issue of quota for OBCs was unpalatable for a majority of Congresspersons, but there was no way they could oppose it. Even the brahmins, whose interests the Congress Party purportedly represents, cannot really come out in the open and defy the quota. It was due to this reason that no political party chose to take a position on this. Even the BSP, SP and the various manifestation of Janata Dal were silent on this.

Arjun Singh, perhaps the only practitioner of power politics in the Congress party, knew that the Congress, searching hard for new constituencies. If his supporters insisted that their leader would have the last laugh after the election results came out then there was a reason. Before the polls there was near unanimity that the Congress Party would do abysmally in the forthcoming assembly elections. They played to the script and lost in Kerala and West Bengal and barely scraped through in Assam and won in Pondicherry. These results reinforced the view that politics of Congress was going awry as their traditional voters like Muslims, Christians, tribals and dalits were drifting away from them. Policies of Manmohan Singh, especially its growing tilt towards United States, were hurting the Congress, certified by the recent assembly election results.

What was worse, its politics was been refashioned by its allies like PMK from Tamil Nadu (TN) who were pushing the government to introduce a quota regime similar to the one existing in their state for OBCs all over the country. What was forgotten was that in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, unlike TN, there is sizable upper-caste population. So significant are they in numbers that even the reservation supporters like BSP leader, Mayawati, and SP boss, Mulayam Singh Yadav, dare not antagonise the brahmins and the Thakurs. Without their support, they have realised over the years, they cannot come to power.

Manmohan singh is finding little space to manoeuvre after the assembly elections.  Expectedly, the Left parties, after their resounding victory in West Bengal and Kerala have been muscling their way around. “We hope that the Congress would listen to us more sympathetically after these results,” declared A B Bardhan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India. Their influence was visible when the PM was pressured to announce that the 27 per cent quota would be implemented by 2007. This assertion flew in the face of the assurance of the PM and the recommendations of the group of ministers that the quota was to be staggered over a period of 3-5 years. To assuage the feeling of the protestors, the government also announced that there would not be a reduction of general quota and the number of seats in institutes of excellence. He also promised that the creamy layer of the OBC’s would be excluded. Even during the two-year celebrations organised in the PM’s residence, Manmohan Singh talked of balancing merit with social justice. There was an attempt by his ministers to sell the idea that the government could accomplish both its promises, but past record suggests otherwise.

The anti-reservation agitation has begun to worry many leaders in the Congress. They sense a power struggle within the party and believe that the party needs to get its politics right. They are wary of Arjun Singh’s assertions because they feel that it could alienate their traditional upper-caste voters and not get them dividends because they do not have either leaders or party-workers from the OBC communities. “Only Arjun Singh and UPA allies would benefit from this announcement. Congress is doomed,” predicted a Congress leader. This power struggle may intensify in the coming days triggering interesting changes in the party and the government. 

Sonia Gandhi, according to party insiders, is cognisant of the challenge that the reservation issue has posed to the party and is trying to shift its focus away from the upper-caste to a broader social base. It is not caught in a cleft-stick, wherein it cannot really broaden that base, nor can it deliver to its narrow upper-caste base.

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