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The Rediff Special/Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi

August 20, 2004

When it comes to making news, Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh seems to be following in the footsteps of his predecessor Murli Manohar Joshi of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Joshi tried to remove all so-called Marxist sympathizers from educational and research institutions, and Arjun Singh is trying to reverse that.

Textbooks are being rewritten once again, conferences and seminars are being organised and planned with special emphasis on minorities. Arjun Singh is out to paint everything Red.

His allegation that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was responsible for Mahatma Gandhi's assassination has already set off a political row. His public advice to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to flush out Sangh sympathizers from the government explains it all.

As alleged by the BJP, by taking on the RSS, Arjun Singh is targeting two birds with one stone. He is gathering the Left's support and at the same time consolidating his own position in the Congress.

Arjun Singh used to be part of the coterie that has always existed around Congress presidents. But today he is something of an outsider, with the likes of Ahmed Patel and Ambika Soni having taken his place. He is one of the Old Guard with little or no influence within the party or in his home state, Madhya Pradesh.

Arjun Singh never lacked ambition, say Congress politicians. A member of the Rajya Sabha now, Singh, who lost the Lok Sabha elections in 1996, 1998, and 1999, was reportedly looking for the home ministry, but had to be content with the HRD portfolio. He has not even been included in any of the significant parliamentary committees, including the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs.

First elected to the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly in 1957 as an independent candidate, Singh joined the Congress three years later. He went on to become chief minister of Madhya Pradesh in 1980 and governor of Punjab five years later.

He has handled many difficult tasks for the party and government, including the historic Rajiv-Longowal Pact, also known as the Punjab Accord, that attempted to end the militancy in the state, but failed.

As chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, he is credited with getting many dreaded dacoits in the Chambal valley to surrender, including Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi.

Singh moved to the Centre in 1985 as commerce minister in Rajiv Gandhi's government. He became HRD minister for the first time in P V Narasimha Rao's Cabinet in 1991.

Arjun Singh emerged as a powerful leader when he was elected to the Congress Working Committee in Tirupati in 1992. As HRD minister, he always had problems with Narasimha Rao. In fact, he once went so far as to accuse the prime minister of not co-operating with the Justice M C Jain Commission inquiring into the conspiracy behind Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

Rao's growing popularity on economic reforms did not help matters any.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, Arjun Singh was tipped to take over from Narasimha Rao. But that was not to be, and Rao went on to complete his term.

Singh resigned from government in 1994 and joined the newly formed Congress (Tiwari) led by another Congress stalwart, Narain Dutt Tiwari. But the 1996 general election proved a disaster for both the breakaway faction and the mother organisation, as the BJP emerged as the single largest party. The Congress (Tiwari) won just four seats and Arjun Singh had no option but to return to the Congress.

In the run-up to the general election to the 14th Lok Sabha, Singh, like many other old-timers, was not used much in the campaign. He and some other members of the Old Guard may not get a second chance now, with the Congress hijacking the BJP's strategy of going for younger faces.

Photo: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images | Image: Uttam Ghosh

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