Authors: Sanjaya Baru
Sanjaya BaruTHE ACCIDENTAL PRIME MINISTER
In memory of my mentors
H.Y. Sharada Prasad
None of my predecessors in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has ever written a full account of his time there. Editors, some far more distinguished than I, who served various prime ministers as media advisers, such as Kuldip Nayar, B.G. Verghese, Prem Shankar Jha and H.K. Dua, did not do so, nor did officials who performed those duties, such as G. Parthasarathy, Ram Mohan Rao and P.V.R.K. Prasad. Parts of Nayar’s and Verghese’s memoirs do, of course, cover that period of their careers, and Prasad has written a series of columns in the Telugu press on his tenure in South Block, but no one has devoted an entire book to his years at the PMO, reflecting on his boss’s personality and policies.
This reticence is peculiar to India. In both the United States and Britain, several press secretaries to Presidents and prime ministers respectively, have written freely about their jobs and their bosses. In India, my most distinguished and longest-serving predecessor, H.Y. Sharada Prasad, set a very different tone. An unfailingly discreet and low-profile man, he was Indira Gandhi’s information adviser, speech-writer and confidant for almost all her sixteen years as prime minister, yet had to be coaxed, over several years, before he agreed to write a few newspaper columns about his time at the PMO.
I first met the legendary Sharada Prasad in 1981 when he was at the height of his career, serving an all-powerful Indira Gandhi who had been re-elected prime minister in 1980 with a landslide vote after being rejected in the General Elections of 1977. I was visiting Delhi a few weeks after my marriage and my wife, Rama, was keen that I should meet family friend ‘Shourie mama’, as she had addressed him since her childhood, and his wife, Kamalamma. I met Kamalamma at their home near Delhi’s verdant Lodi Gardens, but Sharada Prasad himself was hard to meet, simply because he was never home. Finally, we met in his office.
One could then still enter the PMO through its main gate facing Rashtrapati Bhavan and walk up the grand staircase, instead of entering, as visitors now do, by a modest and inelegant side entrance. So I climbed those stairs, and met him in the same room that I would come to occupy more than two decades later. It was four times larger than the editor’s room in the various newspaper offices in which I had worked, and faced the imposing west wing of North Block, home of the ministry of finance.
I spent a few minutes with Sharada Prasad, noting how humble and low profile a man he appeared in this imperial setting. Since I was, for him, Rama’s husband and nothing more, the conversation, naturally, centred around Rama and her parents. I was too overawed by my surroundings to say much. I met him again only after I moved to Delhi to join the
(ET) in 1990, when he came home for our daughter’s first birthday party. In 1993, after I moved from
I invited him to write a column for the paper. He declined, saying he did not feel like commenting on contemporary issues. Undeterred, I asked him, repeatedly, to write about his time in the PMO, but he always had the same cryptic reply: ‘I do not know everything that happened in the PMO. Not only do I not know all sides of the truth, I do not even know how many sides the truth has.’
Finally, in the late 1990s, he began writing a column for the
about his time with Indira Gandhi. He then put these columns together into a collection titled
‘Putting it all down,’ wrote Sharada Prasad, commenting on why those once in power write memoirs, ‘is a substitute for the authority they once commanded by virtue of their position but now miss.’ He then went on to explain why he resisted this temptation. ‘Suppose you have no urge to project yourself or play the justifier of God’s ways to man or man’s ways to other men . . . Suppose you feel that what you know might not be the whole truth in the
-like ambivalence of events. Then you will come to the same conclusion as I have, and not write the book that friends expect.’
His words left their mark on me. I never planned to write a book about my eventful time in the PMO as Dr Manmohan Singh’s media adviser from 2004 to 2008. That is why I never kept a diary, though I did make notes on key events during my tenure. Right up to the end of 2012, I was clear in my mind that I would not write a book about that phase in my life, despite being coaxed by friends in the media and pursued by friends in the publishing world.
Chiki Sarkar and Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin Books India made me change my mind. I yielded to their persuasions largely because of my own sense of profound sadness as I watched Manmohan Singh being unfairly treated as an object of public ridicule during his second term as prime minister. As I told
magazine when it did a cover story on Dr Singh in 2011, it is natural for a political leader to be either admired or hated, but a politician should never become an object of ridicule. Dr Singh’s descent was disturbingly steep. When I left the PMO in 2008, television news channels were serenading him with the popular refrain from a Hindi movie song, ‘Singh is king’. Four years later, a newsmagazine punned on that very refrain to deliver a bleak verdict on the prime minister: ‘Singh is Sin’king’.
He did not deserve this fate. He has many faults, and I have not hesitated to record them in this book. However, he remains not just a good man but, in the final analysis, also a good prime minister. This is especially true of his first term in office. He is, even at his worst, a cut above the competition, be it from within the ruling Congress party, or would-be prime ministers in other parties. No Congress leader—and I include here the party’s leader Sonia Gandhi and its ‘heir apparent’ Rahul Gandhi—can match his unique combination of personal integrity, administrative experience, international stature and political appeal across a wide swathe of public opinion. These qualities were strikingly evident during the first term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, from 2004 to 2009 (UPA-1), with Dr Singh at its helm. However, as bad news, largely a series of financial scandals, tumbled out of the UPA’s second term from 2009 (UPA-2), and the media became hostile, his many talents began to recede from public view. Sadly, his own office became ineffective and lost control over the political narrative.
As Dr Singh’s public image plummeted, the fallout was hard to contain. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, later to become President of India, put it pithily to me in 2011, when I ran into him in the corridors of Parliament and he invited me into his room for tea. ‘As long as the prime minister’s image is good,’ he said to me, ‘so, too, the image of the government and the country. When the image of the PM suffers, the government’s image, and the country’s, also suffers.’
As Dr Singh battled a series of political problems during UPA-2, I, on account of having worked closely with him in the past, found myself being questioned by journalists, politicians, diplomats, business leaders, friends and complete strangers in airport lounges. Why, I was asked, was UPA-1 more successful than UPA-2? Why had the PM’s image taken such a beating? What is the nature of the relationship between the Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, and Manmohan Singh, the man she anointed as prime minister in 2004? What do you think his legacy will be? Why did you quit the PMO?
This book does not bother to address the last question. My reasons for quitting the PMO in August 2008 were mainly personal. Dr Singh, my family and close friends were well aware of them, and I did not see why I owed anyone else an explanation. When asked for one, my stock response has always been to quote M.S. Swaminathan, the agricultural scientist. Swaminathan recounted to me that he told Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when she asked him why he wanted to quit as her adviser after doing such good work, ‘Madam, it is best to leave when everyone asks you
This book does, however, try to address the other four questions based on my knowledge of events and personalities from my time in the PMO in UPA-1. I have not ventured to speculate on UPA-2 beyond my limited knowledge of what happened during Dr Singh’s second term in office. I will argue, in the coming chapters, that the Manmohan Singh of UPA-1 was not the ‘puppet PM’ that he came to be seen as in UPA-2. He was certainly an ‘accidental prime minister’, as he readily confessed, to all and sundry, but that did not prevent him from occupying the country’s most important chair with both dignity and great competence. With regard to the relationship between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, I do not claim deep knowledge of how the two dealt with each other in closed-door meetings; my account is based only on what I saw and came to reliably know. However, I hope this book will help readers understand, at least in part, the complex relationship between the PM and the party president. After all, the complexity of this relationship lies at the root of both Dr Singh’s success, and failure, as prime minister. His ability to manage this relationship better than any other Congress party politician has done, or could have done, laid the foundation for his two terms in office. He is the only Indian prime minister not from the Nehru—Gandhi family to have served this long. On the other hand, the public perception that he accomplished this feat through unquestioning submissiveness lies at the heart of the image problem that has come to haunt Dr Singh.
Questions about Dr Singh’s legacy are often asked by people who take a short-term view of his image and record. As Dr Singh himself said at his national press conference in January 2014, history will no doubt be kinder to him than contemporary commentators have been. When the story of his life and achievements is fully told, he will be judged more fairly than now. His journey from a modest home in the dusty, desolate village of Gah, lacking both electricity and water supply, to the high tables at Cambridge and Oxford, his academic achievements and his record of public and national service, make for a truly uplifting story.
I once said to him that his life story was comparable to Barack Obama’s and his professional achievements greater than Obama’s. Obama made history by becoming America’s first black President. Dr Singh, too, made history by becoming India’s first prime minister from a minority community. Before he became the PM, he had held every important position in economic policymaking in India. Obama had scored, however, in securing a popular mandate for his rule that Dr Singh never chose to secure for himself. That made all the difference to how their individual achievements were perceived by their own peoples.
Dr Singh, too, could have secured that popular mandate, in 2009. There is no doubt he was the architect of the UPA’s electoral victory that year. Alas, he chose not to use the confidence and trust reposed in him by the people of India to assert himself within the Congress party and take control of his prime ministership. That unfortunate decision proved to be the fatal flaw that weakened his authority in UPA-2. In UPA-1 he was ‘in office’ and exercised some authority but he was not ‘in power’. In UPA-2 he could have been in power as well.
All told, Dr Singh had a powerful story to tell about his achievements as prime minister, but he invariably shied away from telling it. He held me back when I sought to project him during my time as his media adviser, saying, ‘I want my work to speak for me.’ Perhaps Dr Singh was nervous about projecting himself because he thought that was the undoing of P.V. Narasimha Rao, the prime minister who, in 1991, brought Dr Singh into politics by making him his finance minister. Rao, whom Dr Singh described, in a heartfelt tribute at the time of his death in 2004, as his ‘mentor’ and the man from whom he had learnt whatever he knew about politics, came to be viewed with hostility by the Gandhi family and those close to it, and has been relegated to an insignificant place in the party’s official memory.
Despite Dr Singh’s discouragement, I did publicize his work and project his personality. Indeed, I saw it as an integral part of my job. In the process, I often burnt my fingers, as the reader will learn, earning the ire of Gandhi family loyalists who treated any effort to promote the prime minister as an affront to the family.
This book does not claim to be an exhaustive account of all that happened during UPA-1. What it does offer is a sense of what it was like to be at the heart of the hopeful and heady enterprise that was UPA-1 as the PM’s ‘eyes and ears,’ and as a loyalist who wanted him to succeed. I have combined personal, admittedly subjective, accounts of what I regard as important events with an analysis, hopefully objective, of policies and issues. While the notes I kept have come in handy, much of what I have written is based on memory, refurbished by the newspaper archives I used to get my dates and facts right. I have also spoken to a few key players of that period—who will remain anonymous—to refresh my memory and I thank them for their time. All the quotations in the book are substantially correct but some may not be verbatim.
During my time at the PMO, I rarely had the occasion, or indeed the need, to look at government files, much less confidential files. Rather than seek access to files, I demanded access to the PM, to hear his views directly on any given issue. During my initial weeks in the PMO, its bureaucrats tried to restrict my access to the PM, but Dr Singh intervened and ensured his doors were always open to me. I was able to put to good use a
obituary to Pierre Salinger, a distinguished American journalist and press secretary to US President John Kennedy, that my research officer, Vijay Kumar, downloaded for me in October 2004. Salinger, it seems, confronted similar problems of access to information in the White House that my immediate staff knew I was facing at that time in the PMO. The obituary quoted him as having told Kennedy, ‘A press secretary has to be involved in the inner discussions so he knows what can be said and what cannot be said to the public.’