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The Doctor needs a shot in the arm

Thursday 18 May 2006, by CHOWDURY*Neerja

With the Government about to complete two years in office, the jubilation is missing. The absence of a celebratory mood is not due to the election results - the Congress didn’t fare as badly as was expected - but to the quota issue, which has caught the party offguard and landed it in a quagmire.

That the Prime Minister is having to find ??a way out’’ shows that there is no agreement within either the party or the government. His meeting with Arjun Singh, his consultations in the Cabinet, with the UPA allies or the Left parties, which Dr Manmohan Singh is now putting into motion, should have preceded Arjun Singh’s announcement to give 27 per cent reservation to the OBCs in premier institutions, and not followed it.

And though a peace formula is being worked out, it is being done without thought and planning. Where, for instance, will the teachers come from if the number of seats in the IITs and IIMs are increased?

While Arjun Singh says he has only taken the logical next step, after the passage of the 93rd Amendment, others do not concur. The idea of the Constitutional Amendment, they say, was to restore the powers of the executive which were eroded by the Court’s ruling that there could not be more than 50 per cent reservation in private unaided colleges. The government’s powers to provide reservation to the OBCs in government-aided institutions has been there anyway and did not need the amendment.

Many in the Congress are worried that, as in 1990, the party may fall between two stools. The quota move will benefit the likes of Laloo, Nitish, Mulayam, Deve Gowda, the DMK and PMK, but not the Congress. The OBCs have not been the Congress’s vote base since the 1960s. The Congress may come to acquire an appeal among the smaller groups comprising the Most Backward in UP, but they are nowhere in a position to take advantage of reservations in IIMs and IITs. The Congress will end up antagonising the upper castes and middle classes - remember metro India had voted for the Congress in 2004 -without getting the support of the OBCs in the Hindi heartland, except possibly in Madhya Pradesh.

It is clear that Arjun Singh has presented the Prime Minister and the party with a fait accompli. It is a minefield Sonia Gandhi has steered clear of and she did not say a word about it in her address to the CPP.

Ministers running their departments like fiefdoms - and speaking on any and every subject, and several of them have spoken on the quota issue before the Cabinet had taken a view on it - is not new in the UPA government. There is another trend that has become discernible of late. Partymen are holding Manmohan Singh responsible for a dip in its fortunes and, even as he is firmly in the saddle today, he may increasingly come to be the fall guy for things that go wrong.

There have been murmurs in the party about the need for a ??political PM’’. Arjun Singh’s fait accompli has unsettled things for the PM, and Ajit Jogi’s letter urging Sonia Gandhi to take over is seen not just as an exercise in the usual sycophancy that Congressmen indulge in nor just an expression of his unhappiness with the CBI’s role in his son’s case. Sonia scotched the Jogi initiative firmly but she has censured neither him nor Arjun Singh.

Assam and Pondicherry came to the PM’s rescue. Had Congress-led governments not been formed there, even though they are coalitional arrangements, more knives might have been unsheathed against the PM. For he is being blamed for pursuing policies, both economic and on the foreign policy front, which can lose the party its vote base. There is a growing worry about the aam admi image of the party getting dented, and restiveness among the Muslims caused by the government’s Iran vote. The results in Assam and Kerala show a shift away of the Muslims from the Congress for a variety of reasons.

As the PM enters the third year of his government’s rule, he will come under greater pressure from the Left and it has made this clear. There is some respite as far as the DMK goes because it is dependent on the Congress for running its government in Chennai. More important, there may be a closer monitoring of the Government’s policies from the party. Sonia Gandhi’s letter to Manmohan on the FTAs and her address to the CPP - she urged him to ensure that prices don’t rise because of speculation, that farmers are protected from the impact of wheat import, that the party gets feedback on the government’s flagship schemes for the poor, that the recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers are implemented, that there is social security for unorganized labour...these are straws in the wind.

The PM has come across as well intentioned and passionate about turning around India’s economy as China did between 1978-95, and he is conscious of India’s emerging position in the world. Comfortable with bureaucrats rather than politicians, he has monitored schemes hands-on. But the impact has been lost because he has shied away from giving a prime ministerial lead to the country. The recent quota controversy is yet another case in point. The reservation issue should not have been allowed to escalate to this extent, and it has already left a trail of bitterness in its wake. A Minister is a Minister of the Union and not the PM.

Somewhere Manmohan Singh is too conscious of the presence of Sonia Gandhi, much more than he need be, even accounting for the constraints of the UPA’s coalitional model. He has not contested a Lok Sabha election, which every Prime Minister has done. He has shied away from giving an interview to the media in the last two years lest he acquire a profile which is misunderstood.

Some of the problems he faces could be sorted out if he could just pick up the phone and talk to Sonia Gandhi directly on issues.

See online : The Indian Express

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