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Arjun rests, govt gets restive

New Delhi, Feb. 12: What’s in a name'

Plenty, it seems, especially when the man who’s come up with the re-christening idea hasn’t been coming to work for nearly a month.

Neither the Congress nor the Union cabinet sorely misses Arjun Singh. Not after the slew of controversial issues he raised. But Manmohan Singh’s ministerial colleagues were a trifle bemused when one item, related to the human resource development ministry, kept popping up at cabinet meetings for over a month but was never taken up.

The reason: the HRD minister has not attended office since he was discharged from hospital in early January after an illness. He was reportedly advised by his doctors to take it easy.

At the last cabinet meeting, when the Prime Minister was asked by a senior colleague why Singh has not been around for so long, he indicated he knew nothing.

The rule is if a cabinet minister cannot attend meetings for a long period, one of his deputies is asked to fill in. But neither D. Puranadareswari nor M.A.A. Fatmi — Arjun’s junior ministers — has been called to stand in because the minister’s office, before every meeting, reportedly informs the cabinet secretariat that he will be present.

Sources described the business, which awaits clearance, as neither “urgent” or of “earth-shaking importance”. Arjun had proposed renaming the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (education-for-all campaign) as “Rashtriya Shiksha Abhiyaan” (national education campaign) as he felt state governments, especially the non-Congress ones, were walking away with the credit for its “success”.

But the Rashtriya Janata Dal ministers opposed the plan. They said the new name he had in mind sounded uncannily close to that of the RSS and, therefore, might hurt the UPA’s “secular” image. Since then, it awaits a discussion.

Still, if it was only a question of renaming, the Prime Minister could have shrugged it away. Congress sources said there was concern over what Arjun’s absence would mean once Parliament is in session.

The HRD ministry is important to the Congress and budgetary allocations on education and women and child development are expected to be closely scrutinised by party chief Sonia Gandhi. Besides, questions on a range of subjects, including contentious ones like quotas, will have to be answered.

The sources said Arjun’s deputies or another cabinet minister can well do the job — because answers are prepared by bureaucrats. But the worry is that “sensitive” political interventions, which only he can handle, might go unanswered.

One suggestion that has come up from within the government is to re-designate Arjun as a “minister without portfolio” and let somebody like Kapil Sibal handle HRD.

Arjun has indicated he would not like to be appointed a governor and the Congress is wary of “pushing him too hard” for fear of creating another Natwar Singh and one who could inflict more “political damage” if he goes to town on the OBC and minorities issues.

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