Bitter Lemon

A former aide claims incredible proximity with Manmohan Singh and access to the affairs of state.

Written by Harish Khare | Published:April 19, 2014 12:34 am
A bitter book by an embittered and jilted counsellor. A bitter book by an embittered and jilted counsellor.

Book: The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh
Author: Sanjaya Baru
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Pages: 320 pages
Price: Rs 599

This remarkably self-indulgent book can demand our attention, not our respect. A self-serving account by a self-proclaimed acolyte of Manmohan Singh has achieved something that even the Prime Minister’s worst critics never managed to do all these 10 years: provoke his family to speak up for him in public and rubbish the claims and contentions in the book.

Even in its gossipy, catty way, the book is problematic on a number of counts. First, it is breathtaking in its cheeky presumptuousness, totally unwarranted, unmandated, and unsustainable. A reader can be excused if he gets the idea that he is reading not the scrappy recollection of a mere media adviser, but rather the memoirs of a co-prime minister.

An impression is sought to be created that after Singh, the author was the second most consequential personality in the UPA-I government. Sanjaya Baru would have the reader believe that besides being the custodian of the prime minister’s image, he was also his counsellor extraordinaire, advising the Prime Minister on cabinet reshuffles: “…when I sat down with him to discuss ideas for a Cabinet reshuffle…[or]… he asked me for names of potential foreign ministers…”; helping Singh decide on how to reach out to President Pervez Musharraf; helping him find a deputy chairman for the Planning Commission; quarterbacking the Indo-US nuclear deal, first with the Americans and then in Parliament; coaching Lalu Prasad Yadav to back Singh (against the Congress). But the coup de grace comes on page 151, in a suggestion that it was Baru who helped Arjun Singh survive in the cabinet, otherwise the prime minister was all ready to chuck the powerful Thakur out on his butt.

Read on. Within weeks, the media adviser tells us, he had carved out a profile for himself that made him the tallest man around the new prime minister.

Sample this:“More than my rank, it was my proximity to Dr Singh that finally defined my access and influence in the PMO. My equations with the three senior officials in the PMO were also affected by the fact that in the process of resolving their differences, Dr Singh had come to assign me the role of a referee.” Woh!

Manmohan Singh, that lifelong disciple of Indian bureaucracy and its niceties and protocol, asking a total outsider, still with the rank of an additional secretary, to be the “referee” for three functionaries with minister of state rank. Holy cow!

Let us introduce some sense of perspective here. A media adviser to the prime minister is a Grand Nobody. The job comes, now, with the rank of secretary to the Government of India, but a junior director in the PMO has more authority, more access to files, more intimate understanding of policy, personnel and politics than a media adviser. It is a purely political appointment. The only perk of the job is (relatively unhindered) access to the prime minister.

Every new prime minister has to put together a team of officers and a handful of outsiders who often take time to fall into a harmonious working rhythm. All PMOs have had teething problems.

When a prime minister happens to be a seasoned politician, who over the years has collected in his entourage policy wonks and political operatives, his team easily settles into a comradely working machine. In Singh’s government, the whole team — including the prime minister — was learning on the job.

In Baru’s narration, as media adviser he had the authority and mandate of a constitutional functionary, perhaps the accountant general and the comptroller and auditor general rolled into one, who was empowered to defend and protect Brand Manmohan irrespective of — and sometimes despite — the Prime Minister’s own preferences and priorities. Baru was inventing a new way of punching way, way, way above his weight.

The effectiveness of a media adviser or for that matter of any official in the PMO is only a reflection of the power and personality of the prime minister of the day.

Over the years, there have been only two media advisers who could be thought of wielding clout of any consequence: the very decent and very gentle HY Sharada Prasad (during Indira Gandhi’s two innings) and the very rough and very pugnacious Mani Shankar Aiyar (during the Rajiv Gandhi era). They were deemed powerful because both were part of a powerful prime minister’s coterie-cum-clique. These two prime ministers had considerable political elbow room. Singh’s greatest strength was that he knew his weakness. He determinedly chose to have neither a coterie nor a clique nor a cabal and certainly, he did not want to have a claque.

Yet Baru insists on arrogating to himself, unilaterally, the role of a consigliere, out to show the Congress President her place.

The second problem with the book is its profound misreading of the role of the office of prime minister and the nature of its institutional authority.

A prime minister has to necessarily work out the institutional powers of his office by negotiating his way through a thicket of constitutional arrangements, countervailing forces, institutions of restraints, political rivals and powerful economic forces. Mere institutional authority of office goes only so far and, indeed, never suffices.

Then, there is this profound ignorance of the Congress party and its personalities and its organisational chemistry. Baru’s account is marred by a profound un-appreciation of the 2004 arrangement, which was not perfect. Whatever its shortcomings, it could be carried forward only by maximising cooperation and harmony between the prime minister and the Congress President. In any case, in a parliamentary system, no prime minister has the luxury of ignoring or sidelining his or her party. The PMO is the most politically significant office in the land. Its policies, priorities, predilections and preferences could not be independent of the prime minister’s political strengths and dependencies. In Singh’s case, there was simply no room — nor any need or cause — for cultivating any antagonism with the Congress president or the Congress party. And, this simply could never have been Singh’s desire.

Yet his media adviser would have the reader believe that he felt duty bound to inject an element of antagonism, even hostility, towards Sonia Gandhi: “I had been unwilling to kowtow to the party High Command or yield space to my senior colleagues… I had projected the PM rather than Sonia or Rahul…”

This self-arrogated overreach is totally inexplicable. The only clue is in a maudlin passage: “Mani Dixit was unquestionably the man closest to him in his PMO. But after Mani’s death, I had filled some of that vacuum.” Only a professional psychologist can explain this continuous harping, with an in-your-face insistence, on proximity to the prime minister.

Above all, the book is a disappointment to the student of history and decision-making. Baru could enlighten us on how a prime minister performs the exacting and demanding job of presiding over the governing arrangements in this vast, complex and difficult land. In Singh’s case, this is the most remarkable story to be told. Only — and rather too sketchily — in a dramatic telling of the nuclear deal is there a hint of the Prime Minister successfully pushing a policy initiative. An opportunity missed.

A bitter book by an embittered and jilted counsellor.

The writer was media adviser to Manmohan Singh from June 2009 to January 2012

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