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Out Of HaRD Drive
A few months into the UPA government and Union HRD minister Arjun Singh was ranked among the few "performers" in Manmohan Singh's cabinet. He'd diligently set out to "detoxify" history textbooks and cleanse his department of saffron stains. In fact, Arjun was considered a symbol of the most significant change the new regime had heralded—a liberal ideology.
A year on, the picture is different. Singh's stock has fallen, his admirers in the Left have been vocal about his not doing enough in the detox drive, for allowing the National Institute for Open Schooling (NIOS) and the RSS-sponsored Ekal Vidyalayas in tribal areas to flourish. They have also criticised his decision to reserve 50 per cent seats in professional courses at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) for Muslims and have dismissed the ministry report he presented at the UPA-Left meeting on May 18. PM Manmohan too is unhappy with Arjun's performance. PMO sources say he feels there's little progress being made in the field of education itself, which "holds the key" to India's future.
Indeed, the PMO's most recent monthly report which monitors promises made in the common minimum programme, says the Prathmik Shiksha Kosh or primary education fund—financed by a two per cent cess on taxpayers—"has still not been made operational". And national advisory council member Jean Dreze points out that the universalisation of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)—another HRD thrust area—"is not getting anything like the attention it deserves".
But Arjun's "underperformance" might still not have attracted attention if not for the "bad chemistry" with the PM. Party sources say Sonia is indifferent too; there's talk of his imminent exit from government, and even that he might not be renominated to the RS next year.
And so, last month, when Arjun's admirers launched a six-month Amrit Mahotsav to mark the HRD minister's 75th birthday and 50 years in politics (his birthday is only on November 5), party circles read it as a pre-emptive strike. At the function itself, both Manmohan and Sonia were, given the occasion, lavish in their praise. Commenting later though, a party leader present said Sonia's talk sounded "more like a farewell speech than one signalling a bright future".
Clearly, ever since Arjun Singh lost favour with Rajiv Gandhi in the late '80s— when he was removed from the post of party vice-president—his career has been on a downward curve. The promise he showed as Madhya Pradesh CM in the early '80s (achievements included a finance corporation to disburse loans to minorities, appointment of Urdu teachers on a large scale, setting up a state minorities commission and greater powers to the Waqf Boards) and then as governor of Punjab has clearly been frittered away.
He had lost then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's trust in the early '90s after ganging up with Sharad Pawar and now he seems to have lost Manmohan Singh too. Congress sources say he deployed his secular image against Rao and he's doing the same with Manmohan. As an ex-associate of Arjun, recalling the Rao era, says: "He had told me then that one always needs a political weapon...and that his was secularism."
CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat, while talking on the AMU issue, puts things in perspective: "Our point is that AMU is a central university where it is improper to have reservation on religious lines. It is not a minority institution like Jamia Hamdard (governed by Article 30 of the Constitution) where such reservation is permissible. This changes the character of AMU. Of course, AMU historically has served the educational interests of Muslims, but it should be possible to look for other ways to promote them through coaching or re-orienting programmes."
Clearly, no one's taken in by Arjun's playing the AMU/secular card. As a survival strategy, it could backfire on him.