The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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PM, Arjun hold hands on quota

New Delhi, May 20: Before the Congress Working Committee met today, the Prime Minister and Arjun Singh tried hard to spare themselves, the party and the government a big embarrassment on the reservation issue by kissing and making up.

Manmohan Singh finally made public his views on the Other Backward Classes quota, saying his government was committed to improving their social and educational status as well as that of the minorities.

The Prime Minister also appealed to the striking medicos to call off their agitation, assuring them of an amicable settlement taking into account the interests of all sections of students.

Arjun, on his part, denied he had raised the quota issue to create problems for the Prime Minister.

But at the three-hour CWC meeting, chaired by Sonia Gandhi and attended by Manmohan, Arjun, Pranab Mukherjee, Shivraj Patil, Ambika Soni, Ahmed Patel and other senior leaders and functionaries, the mood was not “entirely pro-quota or pro-Arjun”, sources said.

The human resource development minister sounded “defensive” as he explained that the constitutional amendment law had been passed in a “spirit of consensus”.

Some “tough” questions, insinuating that a policy matter had been allowed to become a “personal agenda”, were tossed at the minister.

There was a suggestion that the quota bill should be given a thorough legal scrutiny so that the government and the party didn’t lose face if it was legally challenged. One member asked Sonia to sound out the CWC members individually.

Most of the committee’s 30 members are from the upper castes and the few backward caste representatives -- such as Ashok Gehlot, B.K. Hariprasad and V. Narayanswamy -- are either inarticulate, “overawed” in the presence of the heavyweights or unable to put up a cogent defence of reservation.

Manmohan, under pressure from senior Congress leaders to articulate the government’s pro-reservation position, had said on a visit to Visakhapatnam earlier in the day: “Our government has given all our minorities a new sense of confidence. We will ensure rapid improvement in the social and educational status of the backward classes and minorities.”

The party wanted to stem a perception that the Prime Minister was “pandering” to the anti-quota lobby ' backed by some corporate honchos, “intellectuals” and academics ' to try and retain the “goodwill” he had earned among the upper and middle classes.

Asked about a possible personal agenda, Arjun told a TV channel: “This is a canard which is below contempt. Only that person who does not know what kind of respect and regard I hold for Sonia Gandhi could say (this). She is the leader and whatever she decides is acceptable to me.”

Sources said that the Congress’s OBC MPs were “fully” with Arjun and the non-OBCs too backed him out of “political expediency”. But there was a sense of disquiet, too.

“Arjun’s motives were always unclear,” said a leader from Madhya Pradesh, who had worked closely with Arjun once.

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