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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

Arjun Singh's endgame may backfire in the end

May 15, 2008

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Few can beat Arjun Singh [Images] at the game of political shadowboxing. His words have always been measured, thought-through, with little that is casual about them. That is why over the years he was used to draft many of the resolutions of the Congress Working Committee so that they were properly nuanced. He is a master at not saying something and yet saying everything. The "politicalese" that he and other veterans like him were so good at, couching power politics in ideological and programmatic language, is now becoming a thing of the past.

That is why few believe that if Arjun Singh spoke in the manner in which he did in the last three weeks, criticising the disarray in the decision-making process in the Congress and flaying the current definition of "loyalty" which was distinct from "sycophancy", it could have been without a gameplan.

The upshot of the controversy his words triggered off at the launch of his book is that he will continue to stay in the Cabinet. The Congress made it clear that the chapter has been closed and he too has written a 'finis' to the episode.

Democracy in Congress eroding: Arjun Singh

The wily leader from Madhya Pradesh is like a cat with nine lives. When the United Progressive Alliance government was formed in 2004, there were murmurs that he might not get a Cabinet berth. But he did. Then again, speculation was rife a couple of years ago that he might be shifted out to a Raj Bhavan. Instead, he presented the government with a fait accompli of 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in institutions of higher education. Moving him out became that much more difficult and Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] had to go along with it lest the Congress alienate the OBCs, or fall between two stools, as it did when the Mandal decision was enforced in 1990, polarising the polity along  caste-communal lines.

Again, before the recent cabinet reshuffle, the Congress grapevine was abuzz that Arjun Singh might be sent on a gubernatorial assignment to Mumbai as the post had been vacated by SM Krishna. Arjun Singh is believed to have been sounded out again, even after the recent reshuffle, whether he would like to take on less onerous duties, like his old colleague Narayan Dutt Tiwari, now governor of Andhra Pradesh.

He responded by creating another controversy, using the occasion of his book launch, and this time his criticism was directed not only against the prime minister but also against Sonia Gandhi [Images] and her advisors. In the end, however, he capitulated, expressing undying loyalty to the Gandhi-Nehru family, and the Congress also capitulated by declaring an end to the controversy, even as it rebutted his charges and Sonia Gandhi delivered a frosty snub to him when she refused to acknowledge him at a public function.

The party high command backed off from taking action against him for two reasons. One, Arjun Singh is close to the Left and has its backing, and he has extended patronage to Left loyalists through his HRD ministry in the last four years. At one stage during the presidential poll last year, he had made a bid to become Rashtrapati and had the support of the Left-- just like Pranab Mukherji was also backed by the Left parties -- but Sonia Gandhi ruled out both of them.

Arjun Singh has also taken positions which have been close to the Left's heart and the Left is trying to build up a third alternative for 2009, which some believe may lead a government next time around, with the support of the Congress. Arjun Singh is 78 years old and keeping indifferent health but he could have a nuisance value for the Congress if he starts to oppose it, even if it is in his own inimitable way.

It is hardly a secret that he was unhappy when Sonia Gandhi appointed Manmohan Singh as prime minister. With the fracturing of Indian politics, the decline of the Congress, the mushrooming of regional entities which are gaining strength, many leaders, across parties, have been readying themselves, in case an opportunity comes their way and the  situation and arithmetic favours their elevation to the prime minister's post. Arjun Singh has made his moves in a way that he has endeared himself to the Muslims, OBCs, the OBC-dominated parties and the Left.

The second reason for the Congress's non-action against the HRD minister is the crucial state election in Madhya Pradesh in the coming winter and the Congress leadership does not want to do anything which might queer the pitch for the party. Singh may reckon that by the time the MP election is over, the general elections would be around the corner, so he may last his whole term.

As it is, the Congress lost the prestigious bypoll in Betul in Madhya Pradesh recently, which it could have won. It is hardly a secret that neither the supporters of Arjun Singh nor of Digvijay Singh were active during campaigning. Instead large photos of Kamal Nath were used on posters, creating an impression that Suresh Pachauri, recently sent to the state as PCC chief, is only a proxy for Kamal Nath as CM, if the Congress emerges victorious. The other big daddies of the Congress in the  state are not going to allow this, if they can help it. Singh would also like to be in a position where he cannot be ignored in the distribution of tickets in Madhya Pradesh for the forthcoming assembly polls.

Arjun Singh may have survived yet once again, but this time he may have over-reached himself. So far he had used his `loyalty' to the first family as a political weapon to manouevre the situation to his advantage, as he did when PV Narasimsha Rao was in power or when he launched Congress-T, which prevented the Congress from coming to power in 1996. Sometimes his moves have worked and at other times they backfired. But all along he stayed on the right side of the leadership. This time he took on the leadership,  and that is bound to have its own fallout, even if not in the immediate future.

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