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Interview with Dr. Manmohan Singh's ex-media advisor Sanjaya Baru

Ever since it hit headlines, the book, The Accidental Prime Minister, ex-media advisor to Dr Manmohan Singh, Sanjaya Baru's account of his tenure with the PM during UPA-1 has opened a can of worms, and ruffled many feathers especially within the ruling government

Ever since it hit headlines, the book, The Accidental Prime Minister, ex-media advisor to Dr Manmohan Singh, Sanjaya Baru's account of his tenure with the PM during UPA-1 has opened a can of worms, and ruffled many feathers especially within the ruling government. In an email interview Baru speaks of his time during UPA-1 and his thoughts on the man in the hot seat, albeit in a measured way.

In this photograph taken on June 25, 2013 Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L) looks on as Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi gestures during the foundation stone lying ceremony of hydro power project in Kishtwar district of Jammu. A tell-all book by an ex-aide to India's PM Manmohan Singh depicting him as a powerless political puppet hit bookstores this April 12, 2014, stirring new controversy in the midst of a bitterly fought election. AFP Photo/Files
In this photograph taken on June 25, 2013 Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L) looks on as Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi gestures during the foundation stone lying ceremony of hydro power project in Kishtwar district of Jammu. A tell-all book by an ex-aide to India's PM Manmohan Singh depicting him as a powerless political puppet hit bookstores this April 12, 2014, stirring new controversy in the midst of a bitterly fought election. AFP Photo/Files

Q. What made you decide to write this book? Was it to portray the real Dr Manmohan Singh or the true story behind the journey and successes of UPA-1? Or was it a totally different intent altogether?
A. As I have stated in the book's introductory chapter, I chose to write this book to offer a balanced and, in my view, honest account of the Manmohan Singh Prime Ministership.

Q. You have written about how Dr Singh despite being incorruptible didn't feel answerable to the misdemeanours of his colleagues and subordinates. As his spin doctor, didn't you try to convey this to him, to help change this image? Being a man of ethics, wasn't he concerned about correcting this in the face of corruption, and countless scandals that plagued the UPA government throughout his tenure?
A. I do believe he did the best he could within the constraints imposed by the nature of the coalition he ran, like any other coalition PM.

Q. One of Dr Singh's positives, you share, was his ability to keep a coalition together. What were the factors that helped him pull this off better than managing his own Cabinet, Especially when he had big guns like Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and AK Anthony to deal with, and the other centre of power — the Gandhis?
A. He had very good relations with the leaders of the coalition, like Sharad Pawar, Karunanidhi and Lalu Yadav.

Q. Why, according to you was the PM so successful at foreign policy? Also, his equation with the US, and standing among world leaders was impressive; what engaged the world's attention towards the PM?
A. Foreign policy has always been the domain of the PM. All PMs have sought to leave their imprint on foreign policy. Dr Singh succeeded for a variety of reasons that I discuss in great detail. India's economic performance was one reason. His own intellectual stature was another. The fact that he did substantial homework on key relationships, like with the US, China and Pakistan was a third.

Q. You have mentioned how the PM never got credit for his good work in UPA-1, be it the nuclear deal or India's growth, and how Sonia Gandhi and Rahul walked away with all the bouquets for his ideas. Why then did Dr Singh, a man of great integrity, decide to stay on as PM for UPA-2? Was it for political survival, loyalty or something beyond?
A. I believe, as I have written, a sense of loyalty and perhaps the fact that Rahul was not yet ready to take charge.

Q. Despite your advice that it would improve his authority, he didn't contest on a Lok Sabha ticket in 2009? Who or what, do you think, made him do otherwise?
A. I have no idea, but I believe this was the single big mistake of his career.

Q. After the heady days as Singh is King, you've called the PM Bheeshma who lost all control of his own government, eventually; will these errors prove irreversible to the core fabric of the Congress, and India's democratic setup, overall?
A. In India nothing is irreversible. The Congress can revive itself, with better leadership.

Q. Will UPA-2's debacles overshadow Dr Singh's good work? Do you think history will be kind or harsh to the accidental Prime Minister?
A. It is too early to say what history's final verdict would be. I think UPA-1 was a success, in terms of economic growth and the handling of foreign affairs. By comparison, UPA-2 was not a success.

Excerpt

What could Dr Singh do to show that he was the boss? Indeed, was he prepared to do anything at all? His shy and introverted personality was a barrier.

The making and unmaking of Manmohan Singh By Sanjaya Baru Penguin India Rs 599
The Accidental Prime Minister: The making and unmaking of Manmohan Singh By Sanjaya Baru Penguin India Rs 599

His unwillingness to assert himself vis-à-vis senior Cabinet colleagues imposed limits on what a subordinate could do to project his image. There was also the additional problem of the Opposition painting him as an interloper because he was a member of the Rajya Sabha and not the Lok Sabha.

After disrupting his opening address to Parliament, the BJP once again prevented Dr Singh from addressing Parliament when it reconvened in July. Dr Singh's own attitude to the situation he was placed in was puzzlingly ambiguous.

On occasion he would get irritated by suggestions that he was not his own man, at other times he would opt for a low profile and shy away from asserting his authority. Sometimes he would deliberately say or do things to establish his independence.

A trivial but telling example was his angry response, still in the early days of his first term, to my question on whether a particular proposal that he was approving had Sonia Gandhi's approval, and whether we should have it checked through Pulok.

Dr Singh retorted, 'I am the prime minister!' Yet, on another occasion, in September 2004, when a front-page report in the Hindi newspaper Punjab Kesari announced my imminent dismissal from the PMO ('Sanjay Baru ki Chutti Hogi') because, as it claimed, the Congress party leadership was unhappy with my style of functioning, Dr Singh said to me, 'Why don't you call on Sonia? They will stop bothering you.'

The reference was to those around Sonia who were seen to be planting stories in the media against me and the suggestion was that once I was seen having access to her all the sniping would end.

I first responded by saying, 'If you want me to, I will.' He said he would secure an appointment for me. But I had second thoughts and suggested he drop the idea. My meeting her when I was under attack would be interpreted as my seeking her blessings to remain in office.

I told him I took the PMO job because he asked me to work for him and I would leave the day he wanted me to. Why should I now seek her protection and be beholden to her? He remained silent. The subject was never raised again and I never called on Sonia during my entire tenure at the PMO.

Extracted with permission from Penguin India. Pages 110-111

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