The Accidental Prime Minister: Revelation or betrayal?
By Ajaz Ashraf
7 August 2014
A recent book on former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has created controversy in India.
The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh has its author, Sanjaya Baru, providing a Rashomon-like account of his four-year stint in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) under the United Progressive Alliance rule (UPA). Released on 20 April 2014, in the middle of an acrimonious, bruising campaign for the Indian General Election, the book created much furore. By disclosing the inherently unequal relationship that Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress (INC), shared, it imparted credibility to the opposition’s charge that Manmohan Singh had devalued the office of Prime Minister during his ten-year rule. The reason for this devaluation, the book claims, was Sonia Gandhi’s penchant for interfering in the functioning of the government, including perusing official files and deciding on the allocation of cabinet portfolios, and Singh’s tame acquiescence to her extra-constitutional authority. Baru’s claims echoed the opposition’s strident criticism of the diarchy system prevailing under the Singh-Sonia leadership, provoking Congress members to dismiss The Accidental Prime Minister as a tendentious, even fictional, account.
But then, Baru isn’t the omniscient narrator of the kind most novelists are, and, occasionally, dramatic non-fiction writers endeavour to become. Baru hasn’t pieced together a narrative through interviews with characters in the book, nor has he poured through the files the PMO generated between 2004 and 2008 when he was Manmohan Singh’s media adviser. By definition, therefore, his perception of the events during those years has to be partial and subjective.
More than my rank, it was my proximity to Dr Singh that finally defined my access and influence in the PMO.
Baru claims that his role in Singh’s PMO exceeded far beyond what had been spelt out for him. While offering the job to Baru, Singh had wanted him to be his ‘eyes and ears’. But Baru writes that over the next four years, he not only saw and heard what was happening around him in the PMO, but was also responsible for goading into action the ‘accidental prime minister’ who was ostensibly reluctant to displease Sonia Gandhi who had chosen him to head the UPA coalition government. Eventually, and quite astonishingly, Baru became Singh’s sounding board, his confidant, his court jester, his troubleshooter, his prompter in policy initiatives, his strategist in the battles against the loyalists of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and his ‘referee’ in the petty squabbles involving men who wielded enormous power. Baru rationalises the exponential expansion of his role thus: “More than my rank, it was my proximity to Dr Singh that finally defined my access and influence in the PMO.”
Many critics said that Baru’s claims of exceptional influence and access to the PM had to be false and that his role couldn’t have been as large as he claims in the book. But Singh did seem to have had a deep affection for Baru. You sense this in the section detailing Baru’s visit to Singh when he was recovering from heart surgery in 2009. Months before that, Baru had already left the PMO for a teaching assignment in Singapore. In a style reminiscent of a Bollywood film, Baru describes the poignant reunion. His visit was announced to the resting Singh by his wife, Mrs Kaur: “‘Sanjay [sic] Baru is here’, Mrs Kaur whispered into his ear. His eyes opened and he smiled, and then shut them again. She asked him gently if he would like to have a cup of tea. He opened his eyes again and looked at me. She said, ‘Yes, I will get him some tea. You also have some tea.’” Kaur helped her husband sit up in bed. Singh inquired from Baru about his family but their conversation was disrupted minutes later as Dr Srinath Reddy, who headed the team of doctors there, gestured that it was time for the patient to rest.
On their way out, Reddy told Baru that even Sonia Gandhi and President Pratibha Patil had not been allowed to meet Singh. You can’t help but conclude that Singh and his wife perhaps treated Baru as a family member. This impression is reinforced by what Dr Reddy told Baru: “…When Mrs Kaur heard you were here, she wondered whether meeting you might help revive his spirit. I can see it has. He has not spoken for an entire day. Whatever he said to you were his first words today.”
This backdrop helps you fathom why Singh’s daughter, Professor Upinder Singh, chose to fire stinging volleys at Baru soon after The Accidental Prime Minister was released. Prof Upinder thought Baru’s book was a “stab in the back” of her father, “a huge betrayal of trust” and a “mischievous, unethical” exercise. Perhaps her sharp remarks reflected her hurt feelings arising from a betrayal by one whom the family considered their own.
Baru, however, says he wrote this book because of his “sense of profound sadness” at watching Singh become an “object of public ridicule” during his second term as prime minister. “He did not deserve this fate”, writes Baru. He, self-avowedly, wanted to demonstrate to a doubting nation that Singh was not only a good man, “but, in the final analysis, also a good prime minister”. Ironically however, The Accidental Prime Minister contributed to the further public ridiculing of Singh.
The book’s release during the election campaign and the furore it sparked overshadowed the value this engaging book possesses. That makes it difficult to read the book outside the context of controversy, to even ignore your own ideological leanings while thumbing through it – whether you support or oppose or are neutral to Sonia Gandhi’s supremacy over the Congress, largely arising from family entitlement.
No doubt, Baru discloses the unequal relationship Singh and Sonia shared, but he also lavishes praise on him. However, he does this after tearing his style of leadership to shreds. Baru writes, “When confronted with a difficult political demand from an ally… [Singh] would confess… that he was an ‘accidental prime minister’ and the buck stopped with Sonia”. He adds, “All coalition PMs found their power limited by political compulsions, but none of them exercised as little power while taking on as much responsibility as Dr Singh… I would say that Dr Singh has to take some of the blame for this.”
In fact, right at the beginning, Baru describes an incident that was extremely embarrassing to him. Singh had told Baru to ask Anu Aga, the then-chairperson of engineering firm Thermax, whether she would serve on the Planning Commission. After mulling over the idea, Aga replied in the affirmative, prompting Baru to convey her acceptance to the prime minister. Baru was then informed by Singh that it had been decided to appoint Syeda Hameed instead of Aga, much to his mortification. “Clearly, the ‘gender’ and ‘minority’ boxes had been filled up with Syeda’s appointment. I was left with the embarrassing task of explaining away the confusion to Anu… To my dismay, even Dr Singh seemed to take this embarrassment lightly.” Not really the most appropriate way for a ‘family member’ to defend the patriarch.
Baru’s style of batting for his former boss makes you recall that famous Shakespearean phrase, ‘Et tu Brute?’ – three words that are a byword for the highest treachery. Here is what Baru writes: “I once jokingly remarked to Dr Singh that in (former Prime Minister) Vajpayee’s time the Principal Secretary functioned as if he were the PM, while in his case, it was being said that the PM functioned like a Principal Secretary.” The reader might dismiss the ‘jocular remark’ as an irreverent indulgence of a cheeky media adviser. But Baru goes on to inform us that T K A Nair was chosen as principal secretary only because Sonia nixed Singh’s top two nominees for the post – the respected bureaucrat N N Vohra and an unnamed retired Tamil Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. He doesn’t disclose what her reasons were to veto Singh’s choices, but it does establish his subservience to her.
Baru’s eyes failed to bore into Singh’s personality deep enough for us to fathom that mysterious question: why is Manmohan Singh the way he is?
Yet, Baru also portrays Singh as the man who worked tirelessly under trying circumstances and still managed to achieve successes. Arguing contrary to popular belief, Baru insists that Singh was deeply invested in the UPA’s social policies such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).
Baru sings paeans to Singh in the chapter titled ‘Ending Nuclear Apartheid’, describing vividly his exemplary diligence and perseverance in winning the nuclear deal for India. This chapter also exposes Sonia’s unwillingness to support Singh in what was undeniably his most significant initiative. In fact, at one point during the protracted negotiations between India and the US, she made it publicly known that she wouldn’t sacrifice the government for the deal. This prompted a disappointed Singh to confess to two of his interlocutors, “She has let me down”. To discover a remark he made in private – one of the two interlocutors was Baru’s father – surface in the book must have embarrassed Singh to no end.
Baru fails to appreciate the logic underlying Singh’s reluctance to deploy his prime ministerial powers to stonewall an interfering Sonia. He didn’t want to either short-circuit his tenure or damage the Congress through a politics of confrontation. Nor could he forget his indebtedness to Sonia for choosing him for the prime ministerial post. Singh simply didn’t wish to challenge the reality of power politics in his party. He said as much to Baru, long after he had left the PMO: “There cannot be two centres of power. That creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power.”
But Singh’s acceptance of the political reality didn’t impress Baru. Perhaps this was also because he suffered on account of Singh’s pragmatism. In the chapter, ‘A Victory Denied’, Baru says Singh offered him the post of secretary to the prime minister on 2 June 2009, following the unexpectedly good performance of the Congress in the election. On 3 June, Baru resigned from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. But the story of his imminent return to the PMO was leaked to the press, creating a stir in the Congress. Baru was asked to delay his departure. But the die had already been cast – he couldn’t possibly rescind his resignation.
About his unsavoury experience, Baru writes, “To tell the truth, I was dismayed by the PM’s display of spinelessness, even after this handsome victory” (writer’s emphasis). You can’t fault Baru for his anger. Put yourself in his shoes – you have resigned from a job to take another assignment but then you are summarily told that the offer letter has been withdrawn! But it is also true you can’t convince people that your book defends your boss when you describe him as spineless.
Assuming this incident is true, several questions arise: Was The Accidental Prime Minister a consequence of Baru’s suppurating bitterness? Was this book a thought-out retribution against Sonia’s Congress, for which Baru has no love? Did he agree to the release of the book during the election campaign because he knew his disclosures would undermine the Congress campaign and also push its sales?
We don’t know what Singh thinks of Baru’s account. It is possible Prof Upendra Singh’s criticism of The Accidental Prime Minister was a family decision, and perhaps her father helped her sift truth from falsehood. Nevetheless, Singh’s and Baru’s perceptions are bound to differ, for we are all condemned to perceive the world from our own eyes. Until Singh writes an account of his days as prime minister and contradicts Baru, we have no reason to discount The Accidental Prime Minister as fiction, though any reader can sense a degree of exaggeration in it, inevitable in a personalised account.
However, you can say Baru’s eyes failed to bore into Singh’s personality deep enough for us to fathom that mysterious question: why is Manmohan Singh the way he is? For instance, in his Cambridge days, Singh would bathe early in the morning before hot water was available because “he felt shy about going into the common bathing rooms with his turban off and his hair tied up” (writer’s emphasis). Really, was he simply shy about his long hair or did his behaviour symbolise a conflicted approach to his identity in a land presumably more white and Christian than it is today? Did his belonging to the Sikh minority community, brutalised under Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, influence his personality and style?
Baru, in fact, ascribes Singh’s ‘shyness’ to what he calls “a defence mechanism acquired during a difficult childhood when, after his mother’s death, he had to live with an uncle’s family because his father was rarely at home”. His uncle and aunt had their own children to take care of and the young Manmohan “was left to his own devices”. This shyness, the lack of assertiveness, ascribed to Singh might have been a calm acceptance of the fact that an uncle is bound to accord primacy to his own children over those of his brother.
Substitute the uncle’s family with Sonia’s and you get the key to understand Manmohan the man – his silences, his winsome smile, his umpteen decisions to walk the path of least resistance until it comes down to fighting for his corner (as in the case of the nuclear deal), and his instinctive grasp of the futility in seeking to overturn or redefine an unequal relationship. Perhaps this is why Singh lasted as long as 10 years. In this sense, Baru failed to understand not only Congress politics, but also the psychology of his boss.
But what Baru brings to us, refreshingly so, is Singh’s wry sense of humour. For instance, when there were media reports disclosing the bitter squabbles involving three PMO officials – Nair, J N ‘Mani’ Dixit, and M K Narayanan – Singh had Baru prepare a press clarification to which the three appended their signatures. Singh read the text and quipped to Baru, “So what will you call it? Press release or joint statement?”
The efficacy of such self-effacing humour is tellingly brought about in Baru’s description of the meeting between Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in Delhi in 2005. Always gregarious, Musharraf said, “Doctor Saheb, if you and I decide, we can resolve all our disputes before lunch and then go back to watch the [cricket] match.” Pat came Singh’s reply, “General Saheb, you are a soldier and much younger. But you must allow for my age. I can only walk step by step.” The Accidental Prime Minister has many such nuggets over which you can’t help but chuckle.
The book may not provide us insights into Singh’s personality, but it certainly does into Baru’s. He resembles the sum total of all editors we journalists have worked under, for he too possesses their certitude in believing they have all the solutions to the country’s problems. Baru seems to have displayed his certitude on a daily basis with Singh. His role in the book also seems incredibly enlarged, from getting the PM to invite Musharraf to Delhi to hinting at his role in certain appointments Singh made in his first term, to playing a significant role in winning India the nuclear deal, to gratuitous suggestions to his boss on the strategy of checkmating his rivals in the Congress.
Should Baru have written a book betraying the faith and confidence that Singh reposed in him?
Perhaps his role appears enlarged because he can’t but narrate the story from his own perspective. But then, he forgets he knew only a slice of most of the stories he narrates, that what he saw were selected scenes he was allowed to watch. For instance, he wasn’t the only person who was roped in to swing the nuclear deal. Yet, the very fact Singh wanted Baru to return to the PMO suggests he was valued and held in high esteem.
The Accidental Prime Minister is racy, peppered with engaging tales and anecdotes. But the furious controversy over the book can’t but make us ask: should Baru have written a book betraying the faith and confidence that Singh reposed in him? Well, you can answer the question by asking another: can we ever have whistleblowers without them betraying their organisations and their bosses? This question can only be answered after assessing whether or not a betrayal serves the larger public good. Read this book to judge whether it meets that exacting standard. As for us journalists, well, we have always thrived on the betrayals of others.
~Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist and the author of The Hour Before Dawn (HarperCollins India) due for release in September 2014.