Singh and Congress commit hara-kiri

The sin was for MS to believe that it was his stewardship of the economy that helped the Congress chalk up 206 seats in 2009.  CR Sasikumar The sin was for MS to believe that it was his stewardship of the economy that helped the Congress chalk up 206 seats in 2009. CR Sasikumar

If opinion polls are right, question that will need answering is, ‘How can Congress go from hero to zero in just five years?’

Two important questions arise with the publication of The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh. The first question relates to the timing of the publication; the second relates to the subtitle of the book. Why did Manmohan Singh not resign before he was unmade?

The author, Sanjaya Baru, was Manmohan Singh’s (MS’s) media advisor for four years in 2004-08, and as such was privy to confidences that the PM had shared with him. So should a media advisor publish an account of his experiences, and especially so in the middle of a contentious, albeit historical, election season? The timing issue is a non-starter — if it is okay to publish later, then why is it not okay to publish now? My own view is that Baru has done nothing wrong, morally or politically or as a friend of MS. Publication of books like Baru’s are routine in most parts of the democratic world, and it is hoped that this book will set both a precedent and a trend in India. I have long maintained that politicians ignore the new world order at their peril; there is literally no place to hide, so don’t even try. Baru’s spirited and excellent rendition of what happened in the government between 2004 and 2008 is not necessarily original — many, including myself, have over the last several years commented upon the unmaking of MS.

However, we could go on conjecturing and speculating about what happened, but such documentation would not be accepted as the “truth”. Therein lies the importance of The Accidental Prime Minister — his on-the-spot account verifies these interpretations. Of course, Baru might be lying and/or is prejudiced, as Congress insiders (read apologists for the dynastic throne) claim. But if the Congress is defeated and disgraced on May 16, there will be many more believers of Baru’s aankhon dekha hal.

The worth of Baru’s immensely readable and well-written book is that it has several rings of truth, and it rings in several bells of authenticity. Further, even when many of the facts are known (for example, how and what happened during the lead-up to and signing of the nuclear deal), Baru manages to write it like a suspense novel. The book is also very, very complimentary to MS’s role and very, very sympathetic to him; Baru is unabashed in his admiration of Singh the person, Singh the politician, Singh the economist and ultimately, Singh the human being. But the book makes a serious attempt to chronicle and explain the political downfall of this flawed leader. Despite the ongoing controversy, led by the Congress, on how the book is bad for MS’s image, the opposite is most likely true. This is one of those no place to hide instances — history will prove Baru right and this book might be the most positive of any that will be published on MS’s 10-year tenure as India’s PM.

The essence of Baru’s book is the answer to the following question: How will MS be remembered? If not very kindly, why is that so and especially since in 2009, one year after the signing of the nuclear deal, 8.5 per cent-plus growth in the preceding five years and just after the Congress’s biggest election victory since 1991, Singh was rightfully king? Where and how did MS go wrong?

He went wrong because he had sinned in the eyes of Sonia Gandhi’s Congress and, in this sinful behaviour, Baru was a willing associate and leading strategist. The sin was for MS to believe that it was his stewardship of the economy that helped the Congress chalk up 206 seats in 2009. As a contrast, Rajiv Gandhi was able to muster only 197 seats in 1989. There is plenty of evidence, cited by Baru as well, that the people of India voted for “Congress and Sardarji, a person who was a nek aadmi (a good man)”. Whatever happened to Sonia’s leadership, Rahul Gandhi’s youth and Priyanka Gandhi’s charm in 2009? When the people of India voted for MS (as voters in this election are voting for Narendra Modi and not necessarily the BJP), Sonia’s backroom boys exclaimed, iski yeh aukaat? The short-sightedness (shall we say stupidity?) on part of the dynasty apologists to deny MS his due may, in fact, be responsible for the Congress having successfully axed its feet, and just in time for the 2014 election. How legless the Congress is will only be confirmed on May 16.

When MS first accepted the nomination as PM in 2004, implicit in his contract was the understanding with Sonia Gandhi that he would be in charge of running the government and she would be in charge of running the Congress party. This was the much-vaunted CEO-chairman model, explicitly and implicitly enunciated by both Sonia and MS. As widely noted, MS had held every conceivable job in the economic establishment in India and, from all accounts, had been given a free hand by PM Narasimha Rao to run the economy and implement economic reforms as he saw fit. So it was natural for MS to believe in Sonia’s assurances that he would be master of his own successes and failures.

Alas, almost from day one in May 2004, the writing was on the wall. As studiously documented by Baru, MS wasn’t able to appoint his own cabinet, including the post of finance. Even for the 2004 appointment of the renegade (in Chairman Sonia’s eyes) and MS-trusted aide and confidant Sanjaya Baru, a price had to be paid. When the PM wanted him back in 2009, he was not allowed. Think about the magnitude of Sonia’s control over MS: he could not even re-appoint his own media advisor.

MS was taunted, insulted, forced to sign off on corruption and implement economic policies he did not believe in — given all of this, why did he just not resign? As in Network, why didn’t he scream, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Baru’s book is an attempt to answer this question. His answer: “When the horse you are riding becomes a tiger, it is difficult to dismount.” A parallel explanation is that MS believed après moi, le déluge, that is, that if he were not the PM, the country would be considerably worse off. I have no doubt in my mind that MS was right in this assessment; how would India have fared with possible replacements like Arjun Singh or A.K. Antony or retrospective-tax Pranab Mukherjee?

History suggests that Sonia and the Congress must pay for their many sins of commission; must pay for not only possessing, but implementing, an outdated in-the-name-of-the-poor mindset. This is the mindset that proposes an employment guarantee programme in the biggest growth boom in India’s history, the same mindset that introduces the retrospective tax legislation at the time of India’s greatest need for foreign capital, the same mindset that tries to win over farmers by generating the highest inflation in India’s history. And a mindset that exploits the loyalty of ultimately the most transparent loyalist.

The Accidental Prime Minister is essential reading for anyone interested in political history and anyone interested in interpreting the 2014 election. Read it before counting day and on May 16, and when (if the opinion polls and the satta market is correct) the Congress party goes down in flaming defeat, think about how the Congress could go from hero to zero in such a short period of time, and faster than a BMW comes to a halt. Some of the important answers are in Baru’s excellent, must-read book.

The writer is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company