Memoirs are by definition a feat of memory — a project of remembrance. They are not always reliable since they are one person’s recollection of what transpired. This is especially true when the memoirs relate to a closed world that is shrouded under a cloak of confidentiality and the Official Secrets Act, like the prime minister’s office. Sanjaya Baru was the media advisor to Manmohan Singh when the latter was the head of the first United Progressive Alliance government. Mr Baru has just published a book that provides an account of his years in the PMO where he worked as a close aide of Mr Singh, who picked him up from Grub Street to be the media advisor. Mr Baru resigned from his job as the term of the first UPA government was coming to an end and when no one quite expected the UPA to come back for a second term. His account of his days at the PMO provides an insider’s view of happenings in one of the power centres of governance in India. It will therefore be a source of excitement and controversy.
Mr Baru’s remembrance of happenings within the PMO reveals some aspects of India’s immediate political past. His book is particularly revealing about the plight of Mr Singh as prime minister — an accidental one, in Mr Baru’s telling phrase. Mr Singh did become prime minister in the most extraordinary circumstances: perhaps the verb, “did become’’, is inapt; that he was made prime minister is more apposite. The fact that Mr Singh was made prime minister by Sonia Gandhi when everyone expected her to take the top job cast a unique shadow on Mr Singh’s tenure. It was the common assumption — and parts of Mr Baru’s racy narrative bear this out — that he was not his own master. Mr Baru gives instances of how Ms Gandhi constantly looked over Mr Singh’s shoulder and attempted to influence crucial decisions. More than an accidental prime minister — India has had accidental prime ministers before, the name of Rajiv Gandhi comes immediately to mind — Mr Singh emerges from this book as the imprisoned prime minister: a prisoner of the circumstances that pitchforked him into power, but with his wings clipped. It will remain a mystery why Mr Singh submitted so easily to this imprisonment. Perhaps he was a prisoner of his own loyalty and gratitude.
There exists a strange reluctance among Indians who have been close to the corridors of power to recollect their version of history being made. Mr Baru has broken this mould. Without violating his oath of confidentiality, he has presented what he considers to be true. The value of his book lies here: the vicarious glimpse it provides into the PMO and its internal tensions and machinations. Given the nature of the narrative, the first person singular predominates. The book is actually about a prime minister, told by an aide who only saw decisions being taken and not being taken.