Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s former media adviser Sanjaya Baru has set off a stink bomb in the middle of a political season that by its very nature must stink. As with all stenches, this one will soon dissipate as well.
His apparently tell-all book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh’ confirms the long-held suspicion in New Delhi that for the better part of his tenure he had been beholden to Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi personally. While Dr. Singh’s sense of obligation toward Gandhi comes across clearly, what comes across equally clearly from even the limited reading of the book’s excerpts in India Today magazine is Dr. Baru’s own sense of anguish at his mentor and former boss being railroaded by extraneous political forces.
Without going into the details of how I happened to have been privy to many of those same machinations that Dr. Baru writes about as having undermined the prime minister’s authority, I can tell you that this book ought to have been written, notwithstanding that it necessarily betrays many confidences. One significant and obvious confidence that Dr. Baru had to step all over was his own access to the behind-the-scenes goings on courtesy of Dr. Singh himself. It is hardly a surprise that a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is stinging in its denunciation of the former media adviser who also happens to be a journalist.
The PMO statement says, "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 colored views of a former adviser."
From the PMO’s vantage point that makes perfect sense because it could not have viewed it any other way in the current climate of recrimination. That said, it must be pointed out that all significant revelations throughout human history have been made because someone chose to “misuse a privileged position”. It is obvious to me that Dr. Baru made a genuine judgment call when he wrote the book that the public’s right to know facts about what happened during the last ten years of the Indian republic trumps any possibility of misusing a privileged position. Commercial gain is undeniably a part of the calculations made by the book’s publisher Penguin Books India but that motivation does not alter facts as presented by Dr. Baru. And what are some of those facts as evident in the excerpts?
I would not bore you with the specifics of what goes on India’s power politics but it comes through that Sonia Gandhi as Congress president was indeed hands on enough in major decision-making to be characterized as highly meddlesome as well the real power behind the PMO. There has been an invisible fence around Dr. Singh’s PMO which he could not possibly breach without consequences. More often than not the ear-piercing political frequency that he heard every time he approached the parameters of the fence ensured that he stayed within those bounds. I believe Dr. Baru when he says the predominant content of the book is a rather factual explanation of what was going on and which can act as a powerful defense of Dr. Singh.
It is true, as pointed out by Dr. Baru in his interview with Bhupendra Chaubey on IBN Live, that the book has to be read in full in order to understand its overarching judgment. Instead—and that there is no surprise there either—selective portions that buttress political biases already harbored by the concerned players are being used by Dr. Singh’s political adversaries in the Bharatiya Janata Party who have long called him the weakest prime minister in India’s history.
Dr. Baru is right in saying that perhaps no other prime minister has been ridiculed to the extent Dr. Singh has been despite his many accomplishments during his first term. It is against this ridicule that Dr. Baru seems to have risen although the professed purpose of the book is to present a balanced picture of one of India’s three longest serving prime ministers.
This election also marks the end of one of the country’s most consequential—and that is not necessarily positive—public careers that Dr. Singh has had in various capacities, including as its finance minister and governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Even if his Congress Party manages to win/cobble together enough numbers in this election to return to power, Dr. Singh will not be prime minister. To that extent, Dr. Baru’s book is the first insider account of his tenure.
The India Today excerpts present a fairly positive image of the outgoing prime minister or, at the very least, that of a good man choosing to compromise or yield without really losing his own personal integrity. In that context, Dr. Baru uses a telling phrase to describe Dr. Singh’s conduct in separating his individual integrity, which is supposed to be stellar, from that of collective integrity. He describes it as “Active morality for himself, but passive morality for others”. This may sound convenient and expedient but when the stakes are as high as they are in the PMO, this negotiated morality and integrity is pretty much a requirement. Politics is the art of negotiated morality.
Dr. Baru is feeling the heat under his collar because he chose to write the book which his publisher rightly chose to release at this time. Exploiting the content and timing of any book are intrinsic to publishing. That by itself does not take away from its merit or enhance it. If I were Manmohan Singh, I would tell myself looking into my bathroom mirror (even if I do not have to shave) “I am 81-years-old. I must own it now.”