‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, Part II

What exactly does the media adviser to the prime minister of India do? I do not mean a particular individual but any individual who is in that position.

As a professional articulator of the prime minister, one would expect to see the media adviser at least once a year on some television channel explaining important policy issues/decisions/changes. As far as I know, other than informally briefing a bunch of favored journalists or selectively leaking stories the media advisers have traditionally not done much.

Why can’t the prime minister’s office (PMO) institutionalize a system where the media adviser, who is in fact the press secretary, holds weekly briefings? It would be ideal if there are daily briefings along the lines of the White House press secretary but let’s begin with weekly briefings.

Perhaps the timing of my suggestion is all wrong considering that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi is being projected as the likely next prime minister. Modi, a reputed control freak who is known to sulk and pout in the face of uncomfortable questions, may choose to do away with the position altogether. Except coming up with a grand unified theory Modi is capable of doing almost everything himself. He needs no advice from anyone, the least of all from a hack. All his advisers reside in his own head wearing the Modi mask. (Now that is one scary image).

The role of the media adviser has come to my mind in light of the current controversy over the tell-all book by Dr. Sanjaya Baru, a former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. His book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh’ has been slammed by his successor Pankaj Pachauri as “fiction” that is “baseless and mischievous” as well as “colored views”. In particular, the PMO has been riled by Dr. Baru’s suggestion that important files from the PMO were reviewed by Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi. The controversy surrounds on whether in her capacity as the party president Gandhi systematically undermined Dr. Singh’s authority. In Dr. Baru’s telling,she did. In Pachauri’s rejoinder, that is all fiction. I am hard-pressed to decide whom to believe, although the benefit of the doubt should go to Dr. Baru.

It is not that inconceivable that important files were referred to Gandhi who had chosen to be in control of the political fallout of her party’s coalition government. It may not have been spelled out explicitly but it was clear to all concerned that while Dr. Singh would look at the administrative side of the government, Gandhi and her cohorts would look after the political side. There is nothing controversial in and of itself in this division since Dr. Singh was never particularly inclined toward the politics of his job. What is controversial, however, is the likelihood that Gandhi’s sway over decision-making might have gone to the extent of eroding the PMO’s authority. I do not have particular sympathy for Dr. Singh in this debate because from all appearances he chose to go along with this arrangement from the get-go.

Dr. Singh was 71 when he first became prime minister. He had been a full-grown adult for at least 50 years by that time, not to mention someone who had held decisive government positions. It is also an age by which most people would have long formed their core personality (I would put that age at 17 but that is a different point). He would have known that he was signing up for a role that demanded some measure of subservience to the political will of the Congress president. That he has continued in that position for a decade shows that he made his peace with it. With this as a backdrop, it would be misplacing one’s sympathy for Dr. Singh. On balance, the arrangement suited him as much as it suited Gandhi.

If he felt stifled by the split authority, he should have given Gandhi a clear ultimatum. For all you know, he probably did. However, that is neither here nor there because he chose to stay on in office despite all its pitfalls. In the final analysis, the controversy over the split authority is hardly relevant because both sides were equally complicit in it. Dr. Singh was not a guileless and unsuspecting victim. The fact is that he has gone on to become India’s third longest serving prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi with some rather significant accomplishments to his name. Be content with those and live a happy retired life.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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