Sanjaya Baru’s “The Accidental Prime Minister”: Some Notes

“The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh” generated plenty of public commotion when it was released, hardly coincidentally, in the midst of India’s general elections in 2014 – elections which signified the end to a particularly dismal term of Congress rule. The book was said to have confirmed what the entire nation seemed to have assumed all along – that Manmohan Singh was a weak PM who had to kowtow to Congress party supremo Sonia Gandhi.

"The Accidental Prime Minister" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Accidental_Prime_Minister.jpg#/media/File:The_Accidental_Prime_Minister.jpg

“The Accidental Prime Minister” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

“The Accidental Prime Minister” was written by Sanjaya Baru, the PM’s media adviser from 2004 to 2008, the UPA’s first term in office. Baru’s job was to manage the PMO’s media relations, and this book is an informal extension of that very job description.

The book is a self-professed defence of Manmohan Singh. Baru states right at the beginning of his memoir – that he had started writing it only to correct the public image of Manmohan Singh. He says that although he had “never planned to write a book about my eventful time in the PMO”, he “yielded to their [Chiki Sarkar and Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin Books India] persuasions [to pen down a memoir]” because of his “own sense of profound sadness as I watched Manmohan Singh being unfairly treated as an object of public ridicule during his second term as prime minister”. He says the PM “did not deserve this fate”, and goes on to narrate in great detail his story of how he came to know Manmohan Singh, and his experiences of working for him.

Which is why I don’t understand the official statements that dismissed the book as “a work of fiction”. Both the Prime Minister’s Office and Manmohan Singh’s family criticized the book and questioned the author’s intentions. The latter said it was nothing more than the rant of a disgruntled employee.

Soon after the book was out, this was what the PMO had to say: “The book written by the former media adviser 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”.

I am highly puzzled by the negative reactions, because from what I understood, Sanjaya Baru paints Manmohan Singh as this learned, highly accomplished personality who was also a wise politician and an admirable public servant.

To start with, his career was brilliant. From Punjab University to Cambridge to Oxford, his education was exotic, and mostly scholarship-fuelled. After his education, he served at Punjab University, UNCTAD, Delhi School of Economics, the IMF, and then the Government of India in various capacities. Clearly, Dr. Singh is the kind of person middle-class parents must hold up as a role model to their children.

But aside from the “his personal integrity is unquestionable” category of unidimensional tripe we have heard about Dr. Singh in the media, the book talks a lot about his political and bureaucratic skills as well.

For instance, Baru is all praise for how Dr. Singh helped keep a temperamental coalition of multiple eccentric parties in one piece. He also gives you a detailed picture of how the Civil Nuclear Agreement, one of the few UPA achievements Manmohan Singh didn’t mind taking his rightful credit for, came into being.

There were apparently many instances where Dr. Singh didn’t take credit, partly because he was indifferent to public image. He had reportedly dismissed many urges by his media advisor to spruce up his public image and be more assertive in the media. As the book will show you, the PM’s assertiveness was a complex issue owing to multiple factors. For one, there is the fact that the UPA was a fragile coalition, with the Left constantly wanting to prove its points. Then, there was the issue of the Congress party president being different from the Prime Minister.

Sanjaya Baru mentions several times that within the government, the PM’s authority over his cabinet was diluted owing to multiple allegiances in the coalition as well as in the Congress. He even describes the extremely courteous and avuncular relationship he had with Sonia Gandhi (even as he writes that Sonia Gandhi’s sphere of influence was one of the reasons Dr. Singh was curtailed in policy-making as well as made him shy away from taking personal credit for many of his achievements as PM). However, his criticism of Dr. Singh is mild, at best, and nowhere was he disrespectful (or even less admiring) of the PM. (In fact, the book made me respect and admire him more.)

Sanjaya Baru was not around in UPA 2, and his observations are that the PM lost more and more control during this second term. This armchair criticism, I suppose, has not gone down well with the PMO and his family.

But then, the following is an argument one might agree with:

“…we are extremely angry at the exaggerated level of access the author has ascribed to himself,” said Manmohan Singh’s daughter Upinder Singh, in this interview, while calling it an “audacious account”. Indeed, throughout the book, the author pretty much positions himself at the centre of all that happens in the PMO, something which may not have been true.

One thing the book does well is bring back the dignity of Indian bureaucracy and high office, phrases that only evoke cynical images of laziness and corruption. The Accidental Prime Minister was a healthy reminder that the civil services actually consist of highly distinguished people.

Another thing that I, as a Telugu, found interesting, was how many people from Hyderabad / erstwhile AP there were in various roles in civil service.

  • Y Venugopal Reddy (was governor of the RBI during UPA-1, and was a joint secretary in the Union finance ministry during P V Narasimha Rao’s time),
  • P V R K Prasad (was Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s press secretary, and was his personal secretary in 1971 when PV was the CM of AP)
  • Abid Hussain (a retired civil servant, was in charge of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation)
  • A M Khusro (was consulting editor to the Financial Express, Planning Commission member, Finance Commission chairman, among other important positions)
  • Valluri Narayan (was a joint secretary in the Union finance ministry)
  • Duvvuri Subbarao (was a joint secretary in the Union finance ministry, and later went on to become lead economist at the World Bank, and RBI governor – all these were only a few posts in a scintillating career)

P V Narasimha Rao, of course has been talked about in detail, including the sad fact that the Gandhis and their sycophants held a grudge against PV (that manifested in denying him a state funeral in Delhi).

“Clearly, it seemed to be, Sonia did not want a memorial for Rao anywhere in Delhi”, says the author.

Apparently, when PV died, Shivraj Patil and YSR, then AP CM, were deployed to “persuade” PV’s family to “fall in line”, after which PV’s body was flown to Hyderabad.

(The disgraceful official neglect of PV’s funeral pyre at Hyderabad is a well-known Telugu grudge, but the above written account only lends more sadness to the whole aspect of the Congress ganging up against PV.)

The book gives you plenty to think about. I personally found it rich in knowledge of how public office works and how policy is made. Sanjaya Baru’s insights are quite wise and engaging. An anecdotal account like this is even exciting for a layperson, like me, who is not clued in to the workings of Delhi’s corridors of power. I was fascinated, but am taking it with a pinch of salt, because I believe that the family of a respectable politician would have enough reason to dismiss the account and say what they did.

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