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Untold accidents at the top

Book suggests PM threatened to quit

Manmohan Singh with Sonia Gandhi: The book speaks of tense power relations between the Prime Minister and the Congress

New Delhi, April 11: Sanjaya Baru’s fresh-off-the-press account of Manmohan Singh’s first term has drawn a quick punch from the outgoing Prime Minister’s office. And probably dealt the book a high-powered kick-start.

A terse statement from the PMO greeted the arrival of Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh in stores this evening.

The statement said of the book: “It 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.”

The statement also made to belittle the veracity of Baru’s retelling, quoting the Prime Minister himself. “The question about comments of the former media adviser was raised by senior editors when they met the Prime Minister in October last year. His answer was: ‘Do not believe all he is saying’,” the statement said.

Baru was the media adviser to Prime Minister Singh through the UPA’s first term.

None in Singh’s PMO was willing to either identify portions the Prime Minister had a quarrel with or put out specific counters.

Contacted by The Telegraph tonight, PMO sources said they had nothing to add to the statement. A senior official did say, though, that apart from the tone and “certain sections” of the content, the Prime Minister was particularly upset by the timing of the book’s release.

Singh is bowing out after a 10-year term in a welter of allegations ranging from corruption to inflation to policy standstill; his party, the Congress, is struggling on a steep uphill to retain power.

“The release of such a book at this time is going to impact the course of the campaign and hurt the Congress,” the official said. “The sense here is that if this is not a politically motivated exercise, it could have waited until the end of the campaign.”

The Accidental Prime Minister is a Penguin Viking imprint and became available for sale today. Excerpts from the book will be published in The Telegraph this Sunday.

Baru reacted with cryptic stoicism to the PMO’s jab. “I am amused,” he said.

His book, though, will not amuse the Prime Minister or the Congress establishment, it is clear.

Many of Baru’s ringside revelations and observations cast embarrassing light on the manner in which the UPA was run even during its first, and more successful, term.

One case Baru makes through his memoir of the PMO in UPA-I is that Singh was not the master of his PMO, and was being constantly undermined by powerful people in the Congress establishment.

A key disclosure Baru makes is that the Prime Minister actually threatened to quit over the Indo-US nuclear deal: “When I asked him about Sonia’s message, sent through Montek (Singh Ahluwalia), Dr Singh confirmed that she was trying to persuade him to wait and not force the pace of events. I warned him that if he did not act now, the rest of his term would be wasted.

“The Left would smell victory and might even press for a change of prime minister. I reminded him that the Left had a track record of doing just that. They had claimed credit for replacing the ‘pro-business’ Morarji Desai with the ‘pro-farmer’ Charan Singh in 1978; of forcing the exit of V.P. Singh and replacing him with the ‘young turk’ Chandra Shekhar in 1989; of helping ‘leftist’ I.K. Gujral replace ‘pro-Narasimha Rao’ Deve Gowda in 1997. Now they would claim credit, I warned him, for replacing ‘neo-liberal’ Manmohan Singh with ‘secular’ Arjun Singh, ‘Bengali’ Pranab — the CPI(M) was essentially a Bengal party — or ‘leftist’ Antony, who was an old ally of the comrades from Kerala.

“Dr Singh laughed. ‘I am ready to go. Anyone of them can be made PM. Why not?’”

At one point, Baru even calls the Prime Minister spineless and depicts him as a man not in control of the affairs of the high office he held. This relates to the interregnum between Singh’s two terms in office. Baru had quit the PMO a little before the end of Singh’s first term and taken up a teaching assignment in Singapore.

Shortly after the UPA returned to power in 2009, Singh wanted Baru to return to the PMO and had him return to India. They negotiated, but Baru says his return fell through because of political pressure from the Congress top brass.

At the end of an engrossing description of the shifting of power levers in the PMO and the Congress, Baru concludes: “To tell the truth, I was dismayed by the PM’s display of spinelessness, even after this handsome victory. If he was unable to make appointments in his own office, he was ‘yielding space’ too soon.”

The PMO’s criticism of the book, though, may end up achieving what it has mocked it for; in reacting in the way it has and calling it an exercise aimed at “commercial gain”, it could actually churn curiosity and push sales. Especially when the nation is in the throes of its biggest, and probably bitterest, electoral battle, and the political atmosphere charged.

According to those who have read advance copies, the book is a racy 300-odd page insider account littered with anecdotes surrounding the high and mighty who ran Manmohan’s first PMO.

Among some highlights they flagged are first-hand accounts of ego battles between the Prime Minister’s top mandarins and the often tense power relations between the Prime Minister and the Congress.

“It is unlike previous accounts to come out of the Prime Minister’s office in the sense that it is written lucidly and littered with direct conversations between the Prime Minister, his top officials and Baru himself,” said one, speaking from the advantage of a sneak preview. “It’s anecdotal, gossipy, it gives you a whiff of the goings-on in the PMO like nothing else before.”

Tell-all memoirs by senior politicians, bureaucrats or political advisers are nothing new in the West, but this could well be a ground-breaking book in this genre for the home readership, coming from a man who sat close to the Prime Minister and had direct access to him throughout UPA I.

“The one big sense Baru seems to convey is that the Prime Minister, even in UPA I, was never given his due by the party. The book has much more, especially about the big power players of the time and how they impacted key political and policy decisions,” said one with access to an advance copy of the book that’s set to intervene in the discourse for Campaign 2014.


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