Arjun Singh passes away

March 04, 2011 07:03 pm | Updated September 30, 2016 08:12 pm IST - New Delhi

Former Union Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh. File Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Former Union Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh. File Photo: Sandeep Saxena

It was a sad, ironic coincidence. Arjun Singh died on the same day that the Congress, with which he was associated for five decades and more, dropped him from its highest decision-making body, downgrading him to permanent invitee.

Mr. Singh, who had been admitted to AIIMS with chest pain and neurology-related problems, was 81. He is survived by his wife Saroj Devi, two sons — Ajay Singh and Abhimanyu — and daughter Veena.

The veteran — who in 1992 was elected to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) with the highest margin of votes — would have likely been doubly hurt had he known that the restructuring of the CWC was helmed by Sonia Gandhi. For, right through his life, Mr. Singh remained a loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. He quit the Congress and formed his own party after finally breaking with P.V. Narasimha Rao, whom he saw as a usurper and an ideological opponent. He returned only after Mr. Rao himself came under a cloud and became a target of the Congress.

Mr. Singh was cast in the classic socialist-secular mould and stayed committed to this vision till the last day. Indeed, though he became a Minister under Prime Minister Rao, Mr. Singh violently disagreed with the market perspective of the Rao-Manmohan Singh team and remained ill-adjusted to the liberalisation initiatives of the new government.

But the breaking point came not over the direction of the economy but over the 1992 calamitous ending of the Babri Masjid, for which Mr. Singh held Mr. Rao totally culpable.

However, Mr. Singh earned himself many critics for staying on in the Congress and the Rao government till as late as December 1994. His opponents accused him of trying to sabotage the party and government from within so as to allow Ms. Gandhi to move in.

Mr. Singh held various tenures in Madhya Pradesh — graduating from State Minister to Chief Minister, a post he held thrice. He was also Governor of Punjab briefly.

But his stints at the Centre were troubled. Returning to the Union Cabinet as Human Resource Development Minister in 2004, he repeatedly ran into opposition — first for setting out to de-saffronise the education system and then for proposing reservation for Other Backward Castes (OBC) in higher education. He refused to allow foreign universities to enter the country and wanted the IITs and IIMs to toe his line on fee structuring.

Under Mr. Singh's supervision, the National Council of Educational Research and Training transformed from an ideologically compromised body to a professionally-run institution. OBC reservation turned out to be a gargantuan task, requiring the admission process to be overhauled and expanded to meet the aspirations of all sections. But he stuck to his decision and saw it through.

In the party, Mr. Singh came to be regarded more and more as part of an unchanging and inflexible old guard. It did not help him that his Prime Minister was Dr. Singh, whose reform project he had bitterly opposed in 1991.

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