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Review of The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh

A very servile Manmohan Singh

To be frank when I started reading The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh by Sanjaya Baru I was simply looking to reaffirm my belief that the Prime Minister must be a hopeless person who rightly deserves the derision he elicits from all quarters. If you have the same intention, prepared to be disappointed, because more than portraying him as a feelingless, soundless, immoral, expressionless and a robotic person (the writer does spend some time highlighting these attributes although not in very harsh words) Baru portrays him as a person who is one of the most deserving Prime Ministers India has ever had but like a mythological tragic hero, he is too embroiled in his own sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and in the process, not only totally destroys his reputation but also undermines the authority of the highest institution of the country in its most extreme sense.

Manmohan Singh’s critics, both in media and in opposition parties, I think, jumped the gun when they poked fun at him conveniently assuming that lots of juicy details were contained within the book. Even his daughters who blamed Baru for breaking the trust that their father had put in him hadn’t, I suppose, read the book when they made those statements.Once you have read the book, it seems as if Manmohan Singh himself had wanted this book to be written. The book in no way disparages him. Yes, it does show him a willing puppet of Sonia Gandhi in total exasperated cluelessness but in no way it depicts him as a person who deserves no sympathy.

Baru remained the Prime Minister’s media adviser from 2004 till 2008 and this is the period that is mostly covered in the book. While reading the book, I was thinking, how difficult it is to imagine Pankaj Pachauri, the current media adviser, in the same position, enjoying the same level of intimacy that Baru enjoyed it.

The Accidental Prime Minister

Having worked in Economic Times and Financial Express, Sanjaya Baru was already an admirer of Manmohan Singh and he can be easily grouped into the category of editors and journalists who have a friendly, lenient approach towards the Congress party, especially Manmohan Singh. When I say “lenient” approach I don’t mean they’re totally servile (some of them are, undoubtedly, especially from the Hindustan Times and Outlook), but when it comes to making a choice between the BJP (the right) and the Congress (the center of left) they would put their weight behind the Congress rather than the BJP (it might not be true, but this is how it seems by the general state of affairs in the media as well as intelligentsia). As Baru himself explains, the system of familiarity and bonhomie between the top rungs of the bureaucracy and politicians spans many decades and it is not very easy to unshackle one from the deep-rooted attitudes and opinions. Even Baru was known to people who were close to the Prime Minister’s office due to his father, relatives and friends.

Tavleen Singh in her book Durbar also talks about this close network that not only supports its members but also bars the entry of the outsiders. This network has a preconceived notion of what sort of people should run the government and any sort of divergence from that preconceived notion disturbs them, makes them uncomfortable, and consequently, consciously or unconsciously, they start working towards bringing the same old establishment back to power, the establishment they are comfortable with. How deeply this psychology is entrenched can be gauged from the following two quotes from the book:

A couple of years before Sonia Gandhi took charge of the Congress, the communist ideologue Mohit Sen wrote a persuasive column in the Times of India underlining the historic role Sonia would be called upon to play and urging her to do so. The first woman president of the Indian National Congress, he argued, was also a European woman, Annie Besant. The party, he stressed, should once again be led by another.

I assumed that Mohit, as an Indira loyalist, had a special regard for her heirs. But his opinion that Sonia should enter politics was also based on his conviction that without a Nehru-Gandhi family member at the top, the Congress party would splinter and wither away. This view was also encouraged by members of the Delhi durbar—a ‘power elite’, to use sociologist C.Wright Mill’s term, comprising civil servants, diplomats, editors, intellectuals and business leaders who had worked with or been close to the regimes of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv. Some of them inhabited the many trusts and institutions that the Nehru-Gandhi family controlled. They had all profited in one way or another, over the years, from their loyalty to the Congress’s ‘first family’.

So when Baru joined as a media adviser to the PM, you can easily say that he came with a positive view of not just Manmohan Singh but also of the new UPA-1 government that had just replaced the NDA.

Going by the state of the country and the sort of monumental apathy our politicians display towards its people, it was surprising to read about bureaucrats and some of the politicians actually brainstorming on the pressing issues on a regular basis, even weekly, sometimes. Baru in his book says that top bureaucrats, IAS/IFS officers and top rung government secretaries often meet over tea, lunch and dinner to talk about the various programs and schemes being launched and monitored by the government.

Baru assumed that his topmost priority would be to highlight all the work being done by the PM and keep the media abreast with what is happening in the Prime Minister’s office, but his job was made considerably tough by Manmohan Singh’s insistence that under no circumstances he should be promoted more than the Gandhi family.

According to Baru, somehow it had gotten into the PM’s mind that his entire existence depended upon being on the good side of Sonia Gandhi and it would be disastrous to antagonize her or act in a manner as if he were asserting his importance. For him, the party came first, then the prime ministership and then, the country. In fact his own partymen and women had so much disdain for his position that they wouldn’t even report to him and would straightaway go to Sonia Gandhi. Once Pranab Mukherjee visited an important country and when he came back, he reported to Sonia Gandhi, not bothering to even once visit the Prime Minister. Manmohan Singh felt sad, but he never protested and ultimately, the country was the loser.

Perhaps he had gotten this idea from the sort of treatment Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri were met with for ending up on the wrong side of the lady. Narsimha Rao, while he was the Prime Minister, had asserted his authority and rarely allowed Sonia Gandhi to have her way. She turned him into a total outcast as soon as she was able to do so and wouldn’t even allow his last rites to be performed in the capital, which was the norm with all the past prime ministers of the country. His dead body had to be flown back to his native place. After that, his name was totally removed from all official documents.

Narasimha Rao’s children wanted the former PM to be cremated in Delhi, like other Congress prime ministers. Impressive memorials had been built for Nehru, Indira and Rajiv at the places where they had been cremated along the river Yamuna, adjacent to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. Even former prime minister Charan Singh, who had not belonged to the Congress, and Sanjay Gandhi, who was only an MP, had been cremated and memorialized in the vicinity. However, Patel wanted me to encourage Narasimha Rao’s sons, Ranga and Prabhakar, and his daughter, Vani, to take their father’s body to Hyderabad for cremation. Clearly, it seemed to me, Sonia did not want a memorial for Rao anywhere in Delhi.

Interestingly, in 2007, the Congress party tried a replay of this stratagem with the family of former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, persuading them to take the body of the former PM to his farm at Bhondsi in Haryana. However, Chandra Shekhar’s son insisted that the family would go to Delhi’s Lodi Crematorium if the former PM was not given a proper state funeral in Delhi. The government fell in line and Chandra Shekhar was cremated on the banks of the Yamuna at a spot designated Ekta Sthal.

Sitaram Kesri, who was the president of the Congress party before Sonia Gandhi, was subjected to the same sort of ignominy. He was physically thrown out of the office to make way for Sonia Gandhi.

Another major misconception was that no matter what his colleagues do, he would remain un-tarred. That was perhaps one of his greatest fatal mistakes. It reeks of the typical Punjabi mentality of “saanu ki?” (why should I bother unless I’m directly involved?) You cannot remain in a mud pool and come out clean. As the Prime Minister of the country it’s your responsibility to see that your colleagues don’t take advantage of their position and indulge in corrupt practices. His entire fortress of uprightness and principles collapses in one blow under the light of the facts that he stood witness to the massive plunder of the country assuming that things are going to remain fine as long as he remains clean. What sort of PM did he think he was? What good does your integrity do when your entire team is corrupt? This is beyond a reasonable person’s comprehension. This is how he could explain the 2G scam, the Coalgate scam, the spectrum allocation spam, the Commonwealth Games scam and such. Coalition dharma in order to keep his party in power for him came before the country. Baru compares him to the mythical Bhishma. Bhishma was the right person on the wrong side. He even bore witness to Draupadi’s disrobing in the court just because his dharma didn’t allow him to speak up. In the same manner, Manmohan Singh kept quiet while his country was being disrobed and raped by his own men and women.

It was an open secret that had Sonia Gandhi had her way she would herself have become the PM or at least would have made sure that one of her family members would have gotten the seat, but the circumstances were such that she had to settle for Manmohan Singh, a totally pliant, non-politician, non-authoritative personality. It became clear to Baru very soon that everything good that happened had to be attributed to the Gandhi family and everything bad that happened was to be attributed to the PM. She enjoyed total authority with zero responsibility.

Manmohan Singh was so worried about giving every possible credit to the Gandhi family that once he chastised Baru for attributing the success of a particular event or a scheme to him because he was worried that Sonia Gandhi would be upset if the credit was not given to Rahul Gandhi.

The book also throws some light on how political machinations triumph over national interest. Various peace initiatives initiated between Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf were scuttled because the high command didn’t want the credit of such an important event to go to a non-family person. Ever since the times of Nehru and Indira Gandhi the various prime ministers had been trying to strike up a sustainable accord with Pakistan without success and there was this person who had been simply installed as a puppet and he was making headway and consequently, about to take the whole credit. How could this be allowed to happen?

Due to whatever perverse reasons Sonia Gandhi intends to keep everything under her control. To abdicate responsibility she formulated the NAC that imposes all sorts of socialistic welfare schemes upon the government, putting lots of financial burden on the exchequer and wreaking havoc with the economy. She has no qualms about destroying various institutions as long as the destruction solves her purpose and perpetuates the rule of the dynasty. Everywhere she plants her own ministers and her own babus, and nobody questions her absolute authority. In the second term of the UPA, the PM couldn’t even employee the media adviser of his choice.

Then there was this nuclear deal everybody was up against. In fact 50% of the book talks about the various political intrigues that took place during the various negotiations and talks. The survival of UPA-1 depended on the communists’ support. Whereas people like Sitaram Yechuri and Harkishan Singh Surjeet supported the PM, Prakash Karat who succeeded Surjeet had his own axe to grind. Due to infighting within the Communist Party, he created all sorts of hurdles and practically sabotaged the entire deal. The CPM and the CP(I)M withdrew support over the issue and fortunately for Manmohan Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav came to his rescue.

Even the Congress high command wasn’t very happy about the deal because it meant getting closer to the USA which would mean antagonizing the Muslim vote bank that was deemed to be highly against any sort of collaboration with America. So even if the deal was for the benefit of the country, it didn’t suit the Congress high command politically and hence all sort of pressure was put on Manmohan Singh to cancel it.

This was perhaps the only time when Manmohan Singh put his foot down and insisted on going ahead with the deal. The government almost fell.

When the UPA came back to power in 2009 it was solely due to Manmohan Singh, according to Baru. It was his policies, his better handling of the economy and the external affairs that won the coalition its second term. Contrary to the popular belief, the Congress party wasn’t expecting to come back to power. The strategy before the election was, if they want, the entire credit would go to the leadership and dynamism of Rahul Gandhi, and if the lost, all the blame would be put on the anti-poor and America-favoring Manmohan Singh.

Rahul Gandhi, every party loyalist claimed, was the architect of the 2009 result. In the very hour of victory, its authorship was denied to the man who made it happen.

The way I saw it, if the Congress had lost, the blame for the defeat would have been placed squarely on the PM’s shoulders. It would be said his obsession with the nuclear deal cost the party the support of the Left and the Muslims. His ‘neo-liberal’ economic policies would have been deemed to have alienated the poor. His attempt to befriend Musharraf would have been regarded as having alienated the Hindu vote. A hundred explanations would have been trotted out to pin the defeat on the PM. Now that the party was back in office, and that too with more numbers than anyone in the party had forecast, the credit would go to the party’s ‘first family’. To the scion and future leader. It was Rahul’s victory, not Manmohan’s.

Sonia Gandhi, feeling threatened, began to diminish his authority even further.

He said, ‘I am sorry about what happened. You see, you must understand one thing. I have come to terms with this. There cannot be two centres of power. That creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party.’

I saw no point in disagreeing with him or contesting his thesis. But, of course, I did disagree with it. The prime minister was answerable to the Parliament and the government was governed by the Constitution. The party president was only the leader of her party. The prime minister was the leader of the country as a whole and the head of government. One could go on and on, discussing these things threadbare. But this was neither the time, nor the place. Each one of us finds our own rationale for what we do and do not do. He had found his.

Baru enjoyed a personal bonding with Manmohan Singh and Manmohan Singh used to communicate that in minimum words.

The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making And Unmaking Of Manmohan Singh makes an engaging reading despite lots of policy related descriptions and bureaucratic jargon. It gives you a deep insight into the complex character that Manmohan Singh is. In his public appearances he might appear almost dead, but in his day-to-day dealings and with his dealings with other statesmen of the world, he was quite communicative, receptive and presentable. This book will change the way you think of Manmohan Singh, although you may end up disliking him more because he could have done so much better. Who cares how history will judge him? What matters is, how the present generation judges him. Read the book, it won’t be a waste of time. Baru is a good writer.