Sanjaya Baru’s Book A Betrayal Or What Manmohan Singh Wanted To Expose
The political fallout of Sanjaya Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister, a title inspired by Manmohan Singh himself, literally bursts out in the Epilogue—Manmohans Legacy. It hardly taints Manmohan Singh, in fact it raises his esteem as a man who could be an honest Prime Minister. But he had “come to terms with …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.” Singh was in the initial years of UPA 1, not so obliged as to whatever Sonia Gandhi wished, unlike President Zail Singh who was ready to sweep the floor if Indira Gandhi desired, and had built up a good record.
“Under the UPA 1 the economy logged the highest rates of growth for any plan period since Independence, generating revenues that that the government could deploy in rural development, infrastructure …..
“India’s global profile was better than ever…recognized as nuclear weapons, …the incumbent prime minister won an impressive election victory and earned a second term …But historians would also record the UPA -2 was a tale of missed opportunities, of weak and unfocussed leadership ….”
True Dr Singh was until then considered an honest man. Pranab Mukherjee made a pertinent observation that the image of the government and the country was inextricably linked to the image of the prime minister. I have seen the warm welcome and reception when Dr Singh went on a State visit to England where I was working those days. The British media covered the visit extensively.
The book describes well how Sonia Gandhi encroached on prime minister’s turf and clipped his powers and authority. After the UPA 1 she had no alternative to Dr Singh. She could also see how valuable he would be in winning a second term. So it was his portrait that was printed on posters etc.
The book portrays Singh, 81, as an admirable man who held every important position in economic policymaking—including as finance minister when India embraced radical reforms in 1991—before he became prime minister in 2004. “Singh also made history, becoming India’s first prime minister from a minority community—he is a Sikh—and serving for longer than anyone other than a Nehru-Gandhi.
“On the other hand, the public perception that he accomplished this feat through unquestioning submissiveness lies at the heart of the image problem that came to haunt Dr. Singh,” Baru said in his book.
Baru describes Singh as an enigmatic man of few words who confessed when he became prime minister that he was not prepared for the role and shied away from telling his own “powerful tale”.
But he says that Singh’s failure to assert himself after the Congress party was re-elected in 2009 proved to be a fatal flaw that weakened his authority and left him “in office” with some authority but not “in power”. The fiasco at Sharm-el Sheikh was the beginning of the end of Dr Singh. The BJP tore into Dr Singh and his own Party left him to face the music.
There was another development, serious enough for Manmohan Singh. By the very beginning of the second term Sonia had Rahul Gandhi who was getting more and more involved in politics. The “subjects” of the Congress’s Royal Gandhi family started braying for the removal of Dr Singh and for replacement by Rahul. Overcautious Sonia waited for the son to get more mature. But meanwhile Dr Singh was losing authority of whatever was left of it.
Ministers refused to listen to him. All policies and appointments were made and conveyed to Dr Singh to put his rubber stamp. Baru writes that the best time to collect bits of his smashed prestige was when the Prince trespassed in a Press Conference of Ajay Maken and said the Cabinet’s decision to over-ride the Supreme Court order that all those who are convicted for over five years on some criminal charge be barred from membership of any legislature is “nonsense”. His criticism of the decision was justified but not the manner in which he ridiculed the Cabinet.
Dr Singh was abroad and the tradition is that nothing should be done or said to lower prime minister’s prestige while he is in a foreign country but it did not bother Rahul. Dr Singh should have resigned but he did not. Baru is silent on why Dr Singh did not. As one foreign journalist said, “The memoirs, which show the prime minister as subservient to a woman without an official government position, are likely to hand the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a stick with which to beat the Congress party in an increasingly acrimonious campaign.” Which it has.
Why has then the press release by the Press Adviser in the PMO accused Baru of betrayal, unless the facade that Dr Singh knew nothing about what Baru has written has to be kept up? It was said he knew of the contents only when an advanced copy of the book reached him. Is this true? .
In fact, the PMO released a statement by Pankaj Pachauri the very day Accidental Prime Minister was released, dismissing the veracity of the memoir, “It is an attempt to misuse a privileged position and access to high office to gain credibility and to apparently exploit it for commercial gain. The commentary smacks of fiction and coloured views of a former adviser.”
Baru’s reply to the PMO’s charges was, “I am amused.” Baru told The Indian Express, “Most of the book is positive (about the PM)” and that he wrote it mainly because Singh “has become an object of ridicule, not admiration. I am showing him as a human being, I want there to be empathy for him.”
He added there was nothing unethical here (in writing the book). … I haven’t revealed the names of people who gave me the information for this very reason. In fact, I approached several people before writing the book and if they said so, I did not reveal their names. In the book, I have revealed only 50 per cent of what I know. And whatever the PM then told me was in confidence, I have not written about. I have not broken any promises but I have full freedom to say or write about what others have said to me during my tenure in the PMO.
As to the reason why did Dr Singh fail in his second term, he told The Indian Express, “He stopped being the PM of the nuclear deal. He stopped being visible. But this was not so in his first five years, and I felt it was my responsibility to tell people. The Congress should know what his role was. India should know. The BJP leaders have not read the book; if they had, they would realize 90 per cent of it is flattering to Dr Singh. I wrote the book because he is not getting credit for all that he has done. Initially, I myself was against writing it but when after 2012 he started coming under attack, I decided to go ahead. I felt he is not being defended enough.
“…. the book humanises him, it brings him out as a human being. The younger generation today thinks of him as some kind of robot, a statue. The ‘Singh is King’ image is gone. He has become an object of ridicule, not admiration. I am showing him as a human being, I want there to be empathy for him. My conclusion is that he was more balanced in UPA 1 and less balanced in UPA 2.” In fact when parting with Baru, Dr Singh embraced him and said we were partners. The book is a good dividend.
According to The Guardian, “Such an intimate portrait of dysfunction will certainly have political ramifications”, especially since India is in the midst of a general election.
True the Bharatiya Janata Party immediately seized the opportunity and posed a series of questions to Singh and Sonia Gandhi on the basis of book’s revelations: “Did the PM refuse to take daily briefings from intelligence agencies and did this not have a bearing on our security situation? Did the PM forfeit his prerogative to decide on who would be in his cabinet? Was the ‘2G fame’ A Raja appointed at the behest of Sonia Gandhi? Did the PM knowingly overlook corruption by his colleagues as alleged in the book? Did 2G, CWG and Coalgate happen because of this?” In light of the elections, the BJP also promised: “We will not give an accidental Prime Minister to this country.”
No answers can be expected. In less than a month’s time he would shift to the quiet environs of the residence at Motilal Nehru Road, I believe whatever Dr Singh wanted to redeem his prestige tainted with suspicion of his involvement at least in the coalgate scandal has tried to be cleansed through the book.
“When charges of corruption were levelled against his cabinet colleagues, Dr Singh could not put up a convincing defence of his own role in decision-making. In UPA 1 the opposition had tried to sully his reputation for integrity, but with no success. In UPA 2 it managed to make a dent and stabbed away until there was a bleeding wound.
“Dr Singh sought an alibi in coalition compulsions but this time the media and the public were unwilling to buy that. Many came to believe that in not asserting his authority inherent in his office he had devalued it. He had failed to live up to the trust that voters had reposed in him, personally when they had re-elected the UPA,” Baru writes.
In fact, “Dr Singh never recovered from the initial deflation of his authority and it came to affect multiple areas of the government …. Having yielded space to Pranab Mukherjee in North Block Dr Singh had little control over fiscal policy. Speculation was rife that all was not well (between Dr Singh and Sonia) when a family friend (off Rahul) put out a paper suggesting that Dr Singh had become a liability for the government Delhi Durbar was agog with speculation. Was this a message from the family itself?”
Even then Dr Singh did not resign. Despite the humiliations he stuck on. Like later when Rahul dismissed the Cabinet decision over-riding the order of the apex court regarding the convicted legislators. Is it that he felt he had earned the right to complete his term through hard work. I feel he just did that to humiliate the family and annoy them. Why did not ask for his resignation or just sack him. Possibly because he knew too much. If he goes down, he can drag Sonia along, because he is allegedly privy to secrets that can ruin them if made public. This is why Sonia desisted from ordering him out of 7, Race Course.
There is an interesting, what I would call an interlude, in the book. Baru has written that he often clashed with Congressmen while defending Dr Singh’s many policies. One interresting one was with Mani Shankar Aiyer. I wonder why Baru did not give this prominence as there is a surfeit of people to whom what was said to Aiyer would be sweet music.
“On a flight with the PM on an Air Force aircraft, Mani Shankar Aiyer was holding forth on the problems of a nuclear deal. Aiyer was not a supporter and had even said to some journalists that if the PM threatened to resign on this issue he should be allowed to go.
“On the flight he was openly critical of the US and said he was a proud communist who would rather have the old Soviet Union back than befriend the US.”
Baru then told him that if he were a minister in Stalin’s cabinet then the official “who would be my equivalent would have simply opened the door of the aircraft and pushed him out.”
I do not know Baru well though I have interacted with him during Dr Singh’s visits to London where I was posted as Hindustan Times man. I can’t imagine a sober looking man like him saying those words to Aiyer angrily. He must have told Aiyer he would have been pushed out in a very quiet tone. I hope he just hissed those words. I also wish Baru had described the expression on Aiyer’s face after being told off.
“Dr Singh rarely chided his ministers. His strategy was to simply do other people’s work when they were not doing it themselves….” This is what he did when Shivraj Patil was Home Minister. “He would rather step in and do the home minister’s jobs himself rather than reprimand him.” Baru cites an instance when after a terrorist attack called a meeting with Patil, the home secretary and the IB chief, Patil was delayed. Dr Singh began the meeting without him.
“Dr Singh was a gentleman not a dictator nor a party boss. ….His soft touch and his unwillingness to confront and discipline his detractors in the party encouraged many of them to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.”
The fact is that his authority was so much eroded and an image of a puppet in the hands of the puppeteer at 10, Janpath had built up so solidly, that he ceased to be of much importance. Obama no longer referred to him as family, ministers hardly bothered about him. Rahul had more authority than Dr Singh.
Singh let this happen himself. Why did he invite Rahul to banquets and dinners to a visiting dignitary and seated him on the top table. Why did he say that he was willing to work under Rahul. This was worse than what Zail Singh said. He was ready to sweep the floor if Indira Gandhi wished but he was ready to dismiss Rajiv when he was PM.
But Dr Singh’s submissive nature or tactic does not pay in the hurly-burly of Indian politics. To suffer humiliation or follow the appeasement policy in Indian politics is almost a sin. Baru has tried admirably to humanise and wash away weaknesses of Dr Singh. But there is no way that all his weaknesses could be covered.
The appeasement policy of Atal Behari Vajpayee towards Sonia and her family has been and is being criticized even now, even after he retired from politics years ago. Baru has written in a different chapter how silent Dr Singh is even in family and friends circle. But that cannot be a redeeming factor in political career. Dr Singh would have to pay for it, notwithstanding the genuine and sincere efforts of Baru to present the humane side of Manmohan Singh. Baru however deserves thanks for outing the Gandhis capture of authority and power without responsibility. His narration avoids clichés and pseudo-intellectualism. That is why it is more effective. His earlier chapters give us a peep into how the prime minister starts his tenure, how aides and advisers team is built up, how cabinets are constituted and how policies are formulated and crises tackled.
The Accidental Prime Minister is the first book that is written by an insider who happened to be a senior journalist with an eye for details and capacity to record events in his memory. It is at once a redemption of Manmohan Singh and exposure of his weakn-esses. A sort of his triumphs and his tragedies.
In any case, Dr Singh would have to bear the criticism of allowing the Gandhis to ruin the institutions, economy and tolerating the corrupt for whatever reasons. Whether he wanted to complete his tenure to annoy the Gandhis or simply to enjoy the privileges of premiership and state visits, Manmohan Singh has no redeeming reasons to let the Gandhis play with our country as their personal fiefdom. His resignation and reasons for it would have saved India from much of the current mess and chaos.
He can hardly be put on a pedestal but can hope to gain some sympathisers if he can remind people of what he said that won confidence over the US-Indo nuclear deal for peaceful purposes.
“I have often said that I am a politician by accident. I have held many diverse responsibilities. I have been a teacher, I have been an official of the Government of India. I have been a member of the greatest of Parliaments but I have never forgotten my life as a young boy in a distant village.
“I have tried to remember that the first ten years of my life were spent in a village with no drinking water supply, no electricity, no hospital, no roads and nothing that we today associate with modern living.
“I had to walk miles to my school, I had to study in the dim light of a kerosene oil lamp. This nation gave me the opportunity to ensure that such would not be life of our children in the foreseeable future.
“Sir, my conscience is clear that on every day that I have occupied this high office, I have tried to fulfil the dream of that young boy from that distant village.”
All this is fine. But as he himself said, ”Ye jabr bhi dekha hai, tareeq ki nazroon ne, Lamhon ne khata khi thi, sadiyan ne saza patyi.” Much injustice has been seen in the saga of history, when for a mistake made in a moment, we are punished for centuries. Dr Singh made the biggest mistake of wilting under the Gandhi pressure not for a moment but for years, he should expect to be punished.
By Vijay Dutt