The accidental Prime minister: the making and unmaking of Manmohan Singh By Sanjaya Baru, Viking, Rs 599
Towards the end of his book Sanjaya Baru recollects that Manmohan Singh told him, “…you must understand one thing. I have come to terms with this. There cannot be two centres of power. That creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party.’’ This was said in the context of Singh’s failure, in his second term as prime minister, to secure for Baru a return to the prime minister’s office as advisor to the PM. There are many anecdotes in this book that reveal that Singh, as prime minister, gave in to Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, on critical matters that should have been decided by the prime minister himself. The only major exception was the Indo-US nuclear deal on which the PM stood his ground.
Baru was thus aware, even before Singh made this explicit statement, how Singh viewed the relationship between the government and the party. He could not also have been unaware that by making the government answerable to the party, Singh was, in fact, transgressing one of the underlying principles of the cabinet form of government and of the Constitution. Yet, there is no evidence in this book that Baru as a media advisor who claimed to be very close to Manmohan Singh ever raised this issue with the prime minister. In fact, in a book that sizzles with telling gossip and anecdotes, there is nothing that suggests that Baru engaged his boss on any wider intellectual issue like the relationship of the government and the party in a parliamentary democracy. This is unfortunate on two counts. First, it shows the relationship between Baru and Manmohan Singh in a very poor light. In spite of the former’s tomtoming of his closeness to the PM, it was a relationship based on superficial interests. Second, this superficiality defines the book. Baru is a trained social scientist and a former editor but those looking for analysis in this book, or any kind of serious reflection, will be disappointed. At the level of gossip and anecdote, this is charming and entertaining — a good enough read on a flight —but don’t we have a right to expect something a little more substantial from someone like Baru who claims he saw history being made? This is a book of recollection sans reflection.
The absence of reflection produces a serious gap in the book: Baru’s refusal to evaluate some of the crucial policies introduced by his protagonist, the accidental prime minister. Such an evaluation is important since surely the policies made for the making and the unmaking of Manmohan Singh. Baru spends a few pages on how the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was introduced and then describes how there was a scramble regarding who should get the credit for this piece of policy: 10 Janpath (read the Gandhis) or 7 Race Course Road (read Manmohan Singh). For Baru, it is this competition for credit that is significant. He overlooks that between the president of the Congress and the prime minister there was no difference on the principles on which this policy was based. Both believed that the policy was good and sound. Baru, as a student of economics, has no comment to offer on this policy which had implications for the economy of the country. Neither does he offer his readers any insight on what the economist prime minister thought of this policy as an economist. Did/does Manmohan Singh believe in financial profligacy on the part of the State? The answer to the question will determine what kind of an economist Manmohan Singh is and whether his views had changed from the time he was finance minister to the time he was prime minister.
The unmaking of Manmohan Singh and the failure of the UPA government were not dependent as Baru’s recollections would induce readers to believe on whether Pulok Chatterjee was discussing matters with Sonia Gandhi or not. The unmaking and the failure hinge on policies that the prime minister pursued. It is clear from all that Baru has put on paper that on crucial policy matters there were no differences between Sonia Gandhi and her prime minister. There were initial differences on the Indo-US nuclear deal but Ms Gandhi fell in line. The alleged differences are at the level of gossip and Baru reinforces this; at the more important level of policy there appear to be no differences.
Yet a running theme of the second half of the book is how Sonia Gandhi “defanged” (the word is Baru’s) Manmohan Singh. This evades the question of Singh ever having any fangs. In his long career as bureaucrat and politician Singh hardly ever challenged and defied those he saw to be the real holders of power. That is one aspect of the story. The other is that Baru recounts how at one point in his tenure as media advisor when he was trying to project Singh as a PM who was his own master, he was told by Singh to stop trying to manage the PM’s image and to be just a speech-writer. Manmohan Singh had thus successfully “defanged” Sanjaya Baru. The latter accepted this as tamely as Singh had accepted his own plight. This may have been one reason why the two of them had for a time worked well together. There is some saying — isn’t there? — about birds of feather flocking together.
The implicit — at times not that implicit — leitmotif of this book is that as media advisor, Baru had an important role in the success of Manmohan Singh’s first term as PM and the subsequent election result in 2010. Baru, by virtue of the post he had held, was perhaps responsible for projecting Singh as a successful prime minister but he could not — and should not — have been in any way responsible for the actual policies that may have made Singh successful. There is a distinction between making an image and the substance of the image. Baru’s remit lay in the former realm; he makes it appear that he was part of the making of the latter. This is an illusion since as a media advisor he could not have been part of the inner structure of decision making. He only knew what the PM, other politicians and bureaucrats chose to tell him. He assumes that Singh was always telling him everything without any dissembling. His faith is touching.
The singular failing of this book is the author’s own self-importance. The pages bristle with the pronoun I. This need not have been. Baru could easily have written a book which was pitched at a lower key: a book in which the events were more important than the person describing them. His own overwhelming presence prevents Baru from standing apart from what he is recounting. For Baru’s sake one hopes that when the records of Singh’s premiership become available, his version of events will be borne out. Otherwise, he and his book will be judged more harshly by posterity than his accidental boss.