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The PMO files

All of you have probably heard of the law of unintended consequences

All of you have probably heard of the law of unintended consequences. Well, if you haven’t, you need to reflect on some of the things that we have been witnessing in the recent days and months. Take Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘chaiwallah’ (tea boy) jibe. Caught up in his own verbosity at a Congress conclave in January Aiyar declaimed, “There is no way he [Narendra Modi] can be Prime Minister in the 21st century... but if he wants to come and distribute tea here we can make some room for him.” The supercilious Aiyar was taking a dig at Modi’s origins as the son of a tea seller.


Losing control: The Accidental Prime Minister, by Sanjaya Baru, former media adviser to the prime minister has strongly criticised Manmohan Singh for not quitting office when it had become clear that he had lost all control over his government. PIC/AFP

But he did not reckon with the consequences. This throwaway remark has formed the cornerstone of the BJP’s strategy of wooing the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Uttar Pradesh, and by all accounts it has worked brilliantly in attracting the poorer classes of people to the party. As a result, the BJP could win 40-50 out of the 80 seats that the state has in the Lok Sabha. No doubt the ‘chaiwallah’ dig will provide the BJP payoffs elsewhere as well.

The second instance is more recent and equally obvious. Had the Congress party bitten the bullet and remained quiet following the release of a book, The Accidental Prime Minister, by Sanjaya Baru, the former media adviser to the prime minister on the functioning of UPA 1 and 2, there would have been some immediate news interest because of it is election season, and thereafter some modest sales.

But, egged on by the Congress party, the Prime Minister’s Office chose to fight dirty with an official statement on Friday, the day the book was released, by the current media adviser Pankaj Pachauri that the book was “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.”

If Pachauri had couched the statement in sorrow, rather than in anger, he may have actually managed to elicit some sympathy for the government. But by coming out in a slash and burn attack, he only provoked a storm and generated so much interest in the media and amongst the people that the first run of 10,000 hardcover books was sold out by Friday evening.

The tenor of party spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s remarks were even harsher: “Baru is an out of job, disgruntled turncoat who is spreading canards to sell his book and gain cheap publicity.” Never mind that Baru, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, is the director for geoeconomics and strategy for the renowned Institute for Strategic Studies London, and earns several times more than he ever earned as the media adviser to the Prime Minister.

More importantly, the ‘turncoat’ jibe needs comment. A week before the book hit the market, Baru had sent a copy of the book to the prime minister who reportedly read it and had no comment to make. Anyone who has actually read the book will realise that more than anything else, the book is the work of someone with deep affection for Manmohan Singh and who is keen on bringing out the achievements of his tenure as well as the reasons why he was unable to function, as he ought to have, in his second tenure beginning 2009. And Baru’s is no uncritical account. He has strongly criticised Manmohan Singh for not quitting office when it had become clear that he had lost all control over his government.

Indeed, the sordid story he tells is of disloyalty, but not on the part of Baru, but of those ministers and officials, including the top PMO officers, who bypassed the PM or ignored his directives and thereby undermined his administration.

What rattled the Congress the most was the charge that PMO files were seen by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

The reason is not too hard to see. First, showing such files to non-officials, be it Sonia or her political secretary Ahmed Patel would be a serious breach of secrecy. Second, the people liable for action would be the officers involved. That is why Pachauri came up with another statement declaring “The statement being attributed to a former media adviser to the Prime Minister that PMO files were seen by the Congress president, Smt Sonia Gandhi is completely baseless and mischievous. It is categorically denied that any PMO file has ever been shown to Smt Sonia Gandhi.”

The fact of the matter, say insiders, is that officers like the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister T K A Nair and Pulok Chatterji were sharing the contents of official files with Ms Gandhi and Ahmed Patel. The files related not so much to the business of state, but to the top-level appointments in the government which were controlled and manipulated by the ‘high command’.

Since we are at the point of inflection where the old government is likely to be replaced by a new one soon, many of these aberrations and illegalities could well be exposed. If so, they will be testimony to the arrogance of the Congress party leadership which eventually succeeded in chopping off its nose to spite its face.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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