The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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PM backs reservation, with a slip

New Delhi, May 22: Looking a touch more tentative than he would have liked, the Prime Minister began his third year in office affirming his government’s commitment to the Other Backward Classes quota and speaking of the aam admi rather than growth rates.

Manmohan Singh said the Centre would not retract or dilute its commitment to reservation and that a “fair, just and inclusive education system” was just what India needed. But a word he didn’t use led to a small controversy.

“We will pay special attention to the needs of socially backward classes, while ensuring that no deserving student is denied an opportunity to secure education,” he said at the meeting at his residence, attended by Sonia Gandhi, Union ministers and senior Congress leaders.

That he had avoided the word “meritorious” was noted by Congress and other United Progressive Alliance leaders. They felt this was “politically incorrect”, because it implied that OBC, Scheduled Caste and tribal students were devoid of merit while those from the upper castes had plenty of it.

Speaking on the second anniversary of the government, the Prime Minister found no time to mention the “high points” listed privately by his advisers, such as the Indo-US nuclear deal and bureaucratic reforms.

As he held forth on “empowering” the disadvantaged, he couldn’t quite dispel the impression that he was following agendas set by Sonia and Arjun Singh.

Today’s speech nevertheless amounts to the clearest commitment on the OBC quota so far from the Prime Minister, who had on Saturday indicated during a visit to Visakhapatnam that he would endorse the Arjun line on the issue.

Manmohan made a second appeal to doctors and medical students to call off their strike, stressing: “There shall be no ambiguity in our commitment to work assiduously for the well-being of all sections of our society.”

Later, he told reporters he hoped the students would come around and realise that prolonging the agitation meant inflicting “more agony” on themselves.

“That’s not good for them,” he said and advised the strikers to appreciate that “any society would develop only if all sections benefited”.

“Our youth are our greatest asset. We have to protect the legitimate interests of all students. We will provide educational opportunities for all our children,” he said.

The day brought a lot of negatives for him: a bloodbath on Dalal Street, more militant attacks in Kashmir where the Hurriyat spurned the round-table talks, and a threat by Telengana Rashtriya Samiti leader K. Chandrashekhar Rao to pull out if the government pussyfooted on statehood.

The Prime Minister sought to side-step them all by stressing pro-poor issues. He acknowledged his government was being criticised on rural and agricultural policies, mainly because of the unending farmers’ suicides and the decision to import wheat.

“I do recognise that we need to do a lot more to bring prosperity to our rural areas.... We will work on all fronts to ensure that our farmers share in the nation’s prosperity.”

His only comment on the economy centred on the poor. “To sustain and increase the growth rate and find resources to support the poor, we have to manage our finances with wisdom and foresight.”

Sonia, whose body language was more confident than the Prime Minister’s, conceded there were differences in the ruling coalition but saw these as a positive.

“Of course, we have different perspectives and viewpoints on many issues. That is both inevitable and even desirable in an open, pluralistic democracy. But deep down, there has been a steadfast commitment to the UPA itself.”

Sonia is expected to try and dispel Rao’s suspicions of the government. She also indicated that a law to protect the rights of tribals and another against communal violence would come soon.

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