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PM takes shelter behind quota panel
- Enter, four wise ministers to defuse crisis

New Delhi, May 17: When in trouble, form a committee. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has bought time on the reservation row through this time-tested method by constituting what is known as a GoM, group of ministers.

Led by Pranab Mukherjee, it will have P. Chidambaram and Arjun Singh as members while Sushil Kumar Shinde will be involved informally. The committee will do the spadework for a resolution of the controversy.

Law minister H.R. Bhardwaj, who burnt his fingers with the request to de-freeze Ottavio Quattrocchi’s bank account, excused himself from the exercise and said he would give legal inputs “as and when necessary”.

The defence minister was initially unwilling to engage himself in the reservation project because of Arjun, the human resource development minister, but was reportedly persuaded by the Prime Minister because he values Mukherjee for his “political astuteness and perspective”.

Chidambaram was included for his ability to marshal arguments on both sides of the reservation divide and “package” the government’s position “convincingly and credibly” and Shinde has been associated with the committee because he is a Dalit.

As for Arjun, Congress sources said, Manmohan was learning to “live with him” after the HRD minister presented his government with a fait accompli.

Sources said the ministers would first speak to political leaders and academics and pool their inputs with an official in the Prime Minister’s Office or the HRD ministry.

The Prime Minister, who yesterday gave the impression of taking the matter into his hands, apparently got cold feet today and decided he must stay in the background and let his colleagues do something “substantive” before stepping in, the sources said.

They said the four ministers “have been tasked to talk and allow temperatures to cool before a formula is worked out.”

The government is unlikely to make a public announcement until the strikes by some doctors are completely called off.

To wind down the mood of confrontation, the Congress leadership asked the parliamentary forum of OBC MPs to call off their scheduled meeting with the Prime Minister today. The forum is headed by V. Hanumantha Rao, a Congress MP and a pillar of support for Arjun.

The sources said there was no “tearing hurry” to bring a bill to implement the 93rd constitutional amendment on reservation for educationally and socially backward classes because admissions for the next academic year in most institutions, government and private, were already under way.

“It is too late for this year. Most of the entrance exams have been held and though final admissions have yet to be granted, we cannot evolve new guidelines at this stage. Hopefully, by the time the academic year begins in 2007, we will have the rules in place,” said a minister.

The formula the government is looking at is a law to bring in OBC reservation and a parallel package to soften the blow to students in the general category. The components could include more seats, phased introduction of quota and scholarships to deserving students.

The IITs have also been asked to look at options of how to implement quotas.

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