Rasheeda Bhagat

If it was baptism by fire for the gentleman-politician, Dr Manmohan Singh, in May 2004, when as dramatically as unexpectedly he was anointed Prime Minister by the Congress chief, Ms Sonia Gandhi, it was nothing short of a tumultuous second anniversary on Monday for the United Progressive Alliance government he heads.

For one, the architect of India's economic reforms must have watched with shock the equity market crash. We may debate the equity market's connection to the health of the economy, but it cannot be denied that crashes, such as the one of May 22, do not look too great on any government's report card. Particularly when the UPA's spin doctors have taken credit for the Sensex touching the dizzy 12,600 levels, and FIIs rooting for the Indian market.

Predictably, the BJP and its Finance Minister in the NDA government, Mr Yashwant Sinha, were quick to blame the UPA government for the market's tumble; the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Ms J. Jayalalithaa blamed her old foe, the Finance Minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, and demanded his resignation; and CPI(M) leaders such as Mr Sitaram Yechury demanded that long-term capital gains tax on equity be re-introduced. While the market should stabilise sooner than later, what holds out the potential to become a wrecker for this government is the reservations issue.

Powerful mantra

Today, the social justice


has become so powerful that no political party can ignore it. Leaders like the Rashtriya Janata Dal's Lalu Prasad and the Bahujan Samaj Party's Mayawati have reaped huge dividends from it. But even as it can create vote banks, the reservation issue can also bring down governments as it did the V. P. Singh regime. It is a highly emotional and volatile issue over which the anger and agony of the youth can be exploited by both sides of the social divide.

One thing is certain: No government can afford to bandy about the idea of increased reservation for SC/ST and OBC candidates in higher education in as cavalier a manner as the UPA government did. On such a serious issue, all of a sudden the Human Resource Development Minister, Mr Arjun Singh, drops a bombshell and then the Cabinet Ministers and senior Congress leaders take postures for and against the proposed quotas. Then Mr Arjun Singh left it to the Prime Minister to take a decision. But while effigies of Arjun Singh were burnt all over the country, the one man whose image took a mauling as resentment and anger swelled at hiking the quotas is Mr Manmohan Singh's.

For weeks he watched, without uttering a word, the anti-reservation stir gathering force, the doctors and medicos holding people who required medical care in New Delhi, Mumbai, and elsewhere, being held to ransom. Initially all that the youngsters protesting against reservation sought was an appointment with the Prime Minister. But force was used against the medicos, with some being lathi-charged in Mumbai. Finally, a couple of days ago when Dr Manmohan Singh appealed to the anti-reservationists to call off their stir, promising to hold a dialogue with them, it was too little too late.

Facile arguments

Certainly, the Government needed to do better than give facile arguments that a solution acceptable to everybody would be found. Anyway what is this solution? Increasing the number of seats in IIMs, IITs and medical colleges. And all this just before the start of a new academic year. What about the infrastructure and other facilities and, above all, that most endangered species, the teachers?

As is well known the IIMs and IITs are islands of excellence in the sea of mediocrity. Recently Mr Kiran Karnik, President of Nasscom, had expressed alarm at the quality of engineers and graduates colleges were churning out. Ask the head honcho of any IT/ITES company the sector that is head-hunting so furiously and he will tell you how difficult it is getting to find quality engineers/graduates.

Social scientists are expressing concern over those graduating from IIMs and IITs getting huge salaries but "Has anybody bothered to find out how their teachers feel... . surely they don't get half of what some of these graduates get as the first salary," one said of them had told me recently in an interview.

Botched handling

Whatever the arguments, almost every one is agreed that the UPA Government botched up in its handling of the issue. Now, a Bill will apparently be introduced in the next session of Parliament on increased quotas. The nation has no clue what this government will do to address the most valid argument against reservation that the creamy layer among the SC/ST and the Backward Castes always manage to corner the quotas, even as the economically disadvantaged among the forward castes gets cut out of the race. The latter are the worst hit because they cannot afford to spend lakhs of rupees to buy seats or go abroad for higher education.

Surely, we cannot have one small privileged section getting an undue share in India's economic progress. But the challenge is to ensure that the socially and economically disadvantaged are pulled out of their mediocre or distressed lives without an advantaged segment cornering the benefits vouchsafed this group. Imagination, out-of-the-box thinking and above all, sincerity, are required for this.

If after 59 years of Independence reservation has not managed to ensure social equity, the goal might prove as elusive for the next 59 years if it continues to be tackled in the same manner. To begin with, the primary education system needs to ensure decent learning for children from the poorest families. Who is going to ensure that teachers in many rural schools put in their attendance on days other than salary day? In two years, the UPA Government has not exactly covered itself in glory on this front.

Tough days ahead

The coming days are going to be tough for both the UPA government as well as the nation as Mandal II intensifies, and there is no clue how the Manmohan Singh Government proposes to deal with it.

Though these issues loom larger than life, to be fair to the Prime Minister, he has done a decent job on fronts such as the economy or maintenance of communal harmony the Vadodara communal flare up was brought swiftly under control by the Modi Government with the Centre sending an unambiguous message that laxity on this front would not be tolerated. But there is little doubt that Dr Manmohan Singh's image has taken a battering compared to the May of 2004.

Also disappointing has been the role of Ms Sonia Gandhi, who mid-wifed the birth of this government. By allowing leaders like Arjun Singh to undermine the Prime Minister's authority by making unilateral announcements on the quota issue much before the Cabinet could take it up, she has only given credence to rumours that she doesn't want Dr Manmohan Singh to get too popular or successful.

Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 25, 2006)
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