New Delhi: Minister for human resource development Arjun Singh is these days savouring the sweet taste of the Supreme Court verdict, which last month vindicated his position on 27% reservation to all students from backward castes in graduate and postgraduate courses.
During his stewardship at the ministry, Singh has been in the limelight on a variety of education-related issues. Two years ago, students in the major metros took to the streets protesting against quota for other backward classes. India’s premier institutes of technology and management have had differences of opinion with the minister on hiking fees, while a number of foreign educators have had to return empty-handed because they haven’t passed the ministry’s muster.
Quotable quote: Education is the only equalizer, says Arjun Singh.
As for the chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Singh confirmed his appointment recently despite a variety of media stories (including those in Mint) on mismanagement as well as personal misconduct.
Meanwhile, rumours of disagreement with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have refused to go away, with Arjun Singh’s positions, such as on the nuclear deal and on OBC quotas, seen by the PMO as being too close to the Left. And when the minister recently supported the demand by senior Congress leaders to project Rahul Gandhi as prime minister, he was roundly ticked off by the party.
Not for nothing is Arjun Singh known as the wily old fox of Indian politics. He has been in public life for nearly 60 years. His health has often given him trouble. But, as he tells Mint in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview, he’s here to stay. Edited excerpts:
Two years ago, students in New Delhi and other parts of the country were out in the streets, protesting against 27% reservations for OBCs. Now, the Supreme Court has given the same verdict. How do you feel?
The Supreme Court verdict has naturally set at rest all questions. The fact is that, except for the creamy layer, the Supreme Court has not added or subtracted anything. From the very beginning, after the initial opposition, the Prime Minister asked me to see that all those getting admission now, that is minus the OBCs, should not be deprived. They should not feel that these people have come to take our place. So, we expand. And in that expansion, we take care of them as well as the OBCs. And this is exactly what was done.
So, the expansion was your idea?
No, that was the PM’s idea.
So, you were unfairly accused of being divisive by bringing in quotas?
It was patently unfair. There was no question of exclusive, only of inclusive (education). To read exclusion in it and whip up a campaign, I think, is very, very unfair. Not to me, but to society at large… The complexities of this country are so great that anybody trying to whip up differences or disagreements is not serving the cause of the country.
Are reservations restricted to undergraduates?
No, this was another canard that was floated. There is no difference between undergraduates and graduates.
One judge, Dalveer Bhandari, had a difference of opinion, on the creamy layer.
Every judge has the right to say what he wants, but coincidence had it that he was alone. So, what he said cannot become the judgement of the Supreme Court. It is the opinion of one judge. And it is not binding.
Are privately funded institutions going to be covered, too?
That is absolutely on the agenda. The Bill is ready. But, the cabinet felt that we should wait a little, to see how this (unfolds). Perhaps, later in the year, we will pass that.
But, why should reservations apply to private institutions?
Because their numbers have increased (enormously). Not applying would mean that a large number of OBCs would be left out.
So, you see this as a social revolution?
Looking at the level of deprivation in the OBCs, yes. Although I may tell you that many are qualifying on their own merit, it’s not as if they are totally merit-less and we are pushing them. But, the broad mass is left out. So, definitely, that is what it means.
What is the use of this reservation?
Education is the only equalizer, the only way to go ahead. If, till now, 10% was getting the opportunity, now 27% more will get… Ultimately, the country will gain. We don’t want to have an elitist society.
Could you extend this argument to jobs as well?
Jobs stand on a different footing… Education is the (means) to get a job. It cannot be put on the same footing.
Can you re-look at the definition of the creamy layer as it was defined in 1993?
Actually, on Monday, there is a calling attention notice on this issue which I have to answer in the Lok Sabha… I also feel (creamy layer) should not be applied to admissions… But, since the Supreme Court has decided, we didn’t want to confront the Supreme Court.
This reservation issue has catapulted you once again into the limelight. Some say you are the messiah of the backwards?
If I could be spared that adjective, I would be much happier.
For the simple reason that I have no need for such a pose, I don’t want to become that. I had a certain point of view, which I thought was justified, and I stuck to it. That was all. And my party helped me. This would not have come about if the Prime Minister and the Congress president were not behind me.
Do you feel this can create a social revolution, at least across the Hindi heartland? Especially in Uttar Pradesh and especially now that elections are going to take place soon?
If the party galvanizes itself along those lines, yes. If the party does not…
Do you feel the party should…?
I think it should.
It should woo the backwards?
So, you could form an alliance with the Samajwadi Party?
That is beyond my jurisdiction. Till now, what I have said is enough. As to whether the party does an alliance, let the party hierarchy decide.
After independence, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru looked at reservations for scheduled castes and tribes because they had been deprived for generations. And now you are doing the same for the backwards…
Do you know the first amendment moved for accommodating the backwards in the Constitution was done by Panditji… Yes, they (backwards) were in the background, because the SCs and the STs were in the front. But, population-wise, these people are much, much more.
So, it may have taken 50 years, but the time has come…
Yes, that time has arrived.
On private education, are you in favour of foreign direct investment (FDI), of foreign universities coming in?
I am not opposed to it, but the real universities should come. We don’t want third-grade universities of the West to come and try to find their place in the country, because they can’t compete there. So, they think India is a virgin area. (Also), we cannot say that the regulations that apply to higher education in India will not apply to those institutions. It will have to be within (our) framework.
These institutions want to be outside this framework?
I won’t put it that way, but they certainly were not very favourable to complying with our regulations.
On AICTE, you set up an inquiry into allegations of mismanagement, misconduct, corruption...
You see, some of the allegations were against the chairman. All the allegations that we got, including the ones from your newspaper, we sent to him. I can say that most of the allegations were based on hearsay. Somebody comes and tells me that that person was demanding this much, on behalf of the chairman, and I have paid this much. Those were the kind of allegations.
But now I have told the chairman that he should revamp the entire structure of the AICTE, and he will be held accountable for whatever happens after this. The other reason was that the AICTE committed the cardinal sin of pinpointing those organizations which are not functioning (according to) the regulations of the country… So, it was thought best to malign the whole organization.
So, is that why you have retained him as the chairman?
His name was suggested by the search committee, I didn’t appoint him. The search committee found him fit enough, I thought he has a right to be there.
I want to ask you about your statement that Rahul Gandhi should be prime minister, you were accused of sycophancy…
I was totally misquoted, I never said he should be prime minster. The question was, why are you all projecting Rahul Gandhi as prime minister. I said, what is the harm if he is projected? It was a counter-question that I asked.
I also added that he is making very serious efforts to acquire information and knowledge and we see a glimpse of his father, so ...there is no reason why we should not project him.
So far as becoming prime minister is concerned, at this point Manmohan Singh is the Prime Minister and we all support him. Manmohan Singhji himself said when Rahul Gandhi joined the Congress that he is the leader of the future, did he not? ...This is nothing against Manmohan Singh.
But did you feel hurt that the party said it does not need sycophants?
Even if I was, I thought it better not to say anything.
To come back to reservations, do you think this could be the major achievement of your government?
It is, not could be, it is. I am sure the government is looking at it that way.
What about the nuclear deal?
All of us passed the nuclear deal… Also, the Right to Education, Right to Information, the National Rural Employment Scheme, all these are also flagship programmes of the government.
Some people say that you should not sacrifice the government for the nuclear deal?
At that point of time, that kind of situation was developing…
What is the situation now?
The Left is not leaving its stance, we are trying to convince them, so let us see.
What do you think should be done?
I have supported the nuclear deal in the cabinet.
Should the government now go ahead, take the deal to the next stage?
Yes, if it wants to go ahead (without) the Left’s support, which perhaps would lead to a situation where the stability of the government will come into question. Therefore that issue that you are saying, that we should not sacrifice the government, will again be posed.
What do you think?
I don’t think the government should be sacrificed. And that is why we are all trying to find ways around this.
There are lots of reports about differences between you and the Prime Minister, on nuclear deal, on FDI in education, on OBC reservation.?
I have no differences with the Prime Minister on any of these issues. As I said, we passed the nuclear deal. The question of FDI, it is already there for education…I may have some different points of view with others, not with the Prime Minister.
There are reports that you could be given a governorship?
Well, I don’t know if anybody has suggested, or it is just a canard. I am not interested in that (laughs).
Lots of reports about your health…
Health is a factor which no individual can manage on his own. I will not deny that I have health problems. But lots of people have health problems, not only in India but all over the world. President Roosevelt was paralysed from the hip downwards and he remained a president of the United States during the war. So (health) alone should not be (the) deciding factor. Now that modern medicines have come so far, any restraints that are caused because of (ill) health can also be minimized. It is the mental approach to your being. Naturally, I must retire someday, and I think 60 years is a long time. I will retire.
But going into a Raj Bhavan is not the way to do it?
No, that is not my idea of retirement.