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Sanjaya Baru , Manmohan Singh’s first media advisor, gets bad-mouthed by Congress Party leaders about what he has written about Dr Manmohan Singh but the book is really more about the author himself
Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s reaction to The Accidental Prime Minister, a book that draws upon Dr Sanjaya Baru’s stint as media advisor to prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh in UPA-1 (United Progressive Alliance) was this: “Greed, commercial profit, betrayal, ambition and sensationalism all coalesced into a very, very unsavoury cocktail.”
This statement and many versions of it, probably, encouraged thousands of people, who rarely read a book, to buy it. I did too. Well, I am the wrong example; I would have bought it anyway, since Dr Baru was a colleague in the past and I was an admirer of Dr Singh. Meanwhile, the Congress Party’s virulent reaction, another example of extremely poor strategy and judgement during election time, ensured plenty of publicity for Dr Baru and his book.
But those who grabbed a copy of The Accidental Prime Minister hoping for some hot gossip about the powerful Delhi durbar are bound to be disappointed. The book is less about Dr Manmohan Singh and more about Dr Baru’s stint at the PMO where, he says he had, not just a ringside view to the most important decisions that affected India, but a role in shaping them. He tells us how he was the first to float the idea of Dr Singh’s suitability as PM and Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia probably owes him a ‘thank you’ for the Planning Commission job!
The book is as glowing an account as one can write about a man whose chief qualification for being appointed the PM was that he would self-effacingly defer to Sonia Gandhi every time and could be trusted not to play politics. That he also happened to be a decent human being, personally non-corrupt and a highly qualified economist who could engage with the best of minds in the world on equal terms, were only a bonus for the Gandhi family. Such a person is rare, especially when you consider that he has never uttered a word about all the ridicule heaped on him in UPA’s second term.
The Congress Party’s harsh reaction only turned the spotlight on what was known to the Delhi media for 10 long years. Pulok Chatterjee, principal secretary to the PM, was seen as a trusted emissary of Sonia Gandhi. In 2008, a joint secretary in the finance ministry (now an additional secretary) told me, “in this government, it is possible that the PM’s instructions would be ignored but not Mr Chatterjee’s—those are taken most seriously.” Every editor and anchor who interviewed Dr Baru about his book would have witnessed this power equation hundreds of times, just as they saw the National Advisory Council (NAC) behaving like a shadow Cabinet, until several members over-reached themselves and it slowly lost its relevance.
Is it any secret that Sonia Gandhi decided Cabinet appointments? Or that Rahul Gandhi was being groomed for prime ministership; often at Dr Singh’s cost? The dubious episode of Rahul Gandhi storming into Ajay Maken’s press briefing to talk about tearing up an ordinance proposed by his own government (while the PM was touring the US) had even upset several senior Congressmen who were no supporters of the PM.
Congress Party’s vituperative reaction to Dr Baru seems triggered by his claim that the PM was ‘defanged’ because he made “the cardinal mistake of imagining the victory was his” in 2009. And that is where a lot of what Dr Baru says is pure speculation. Was 2009 really a victory? It was a badly cobbled alliance, where the arrogant Left Front was replaced by a bunch of extremely corrupt and shady partners.
The fact is, neither Dr Singh nor anyone in the PMO nor Congress leaders expected to come back to power. Most people in the PMO had already made their exit plans. The powerful Pulok Chatterjee landed a very cushy post with the International Monetary Fund. The Congress itself was busy ensuring that key appointments, including those in the judiciary, were packed with loyalists who would protect their interest against a new non-Congress government.
Interestingly, Dr Baru does not explain why he chose to leave on a teaching assignment at Singapore before the 2009 elections. In fact, the dastardly terror attack on Mumbai’s Taj Mahal and Oberoi Hotels on 26 November 2008, do not even find a mention in the book, because Dr Baru was in Singapore when it happened.
The attack, for the first time, brought Mumbai’s rich and powerful face-to-face with poor national security. While there was seething anger against the Congress for the ineffectual manner in which it dealt with the attack, it also forced many business houses to support a stable government in Delhi rather than a hodgepodge coalition led by a deeply divided Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
There was also the stark realisation that we had no sensible alternative. It triggered a lot of thinking and, probably, sowed the seeds of initial support for an alternative like India Against Corruption, and its splinter group, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). This important phase, including what influenced the electorate, finds no mention in the book.
As it turns out, the Congress returned to power in 2009 and Dr Baru says, the PM believed he was the architect of that victory. Dr Baru was offered a more powerful post in the PMO for which he came back to India. But this job failed to materialise, making him feel hurt and betrayed. Dr Baru did not want to be a mere ‘media advisor’ in UPA-2. But the PM offered to make him a member of the Planning Commission with a minister of state rank, but it was apparently not good enough. Instead, Dr Baru opted to cool his heels, playing second fiddle to TN Ninan at Business Standard.
Harish Khare, Dr Baru’s successor at the PMO, has tried to demolish Dr Baru’s claims about his role and importance. He describes the post of the media advisor as that of a ‘Grand Nobody’. That, too, is untrue and unfair. For starters, the job does not provide the opportunity to become a ‘co-prime minister’ (which is how Mr Khare labels Dr Baru’s posturing) but it certainly goes to someone with plenty of powerful connections. And here, Sanjaya Baru goes to some length to explain his close connections, and those of his wife’s family, to the power-elite and intellectuals in Delhi. Dr Baru had great access to prime minister PV Narasimha Rao through is father, who was a well-regarded chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh. Remember, it was Narasimha Rao who made
Dr Singh the finance minister in 1991. These connections surely played a role in Dr Baru’s selection as media advisor, although he had no truck with mainstream language publications or the increasingly powerful television channels. There is no mention of the teething troubles he faced with the media on this account.
A media advisor is far from a ‘grand nobody’. A smart advisor knows how to play favourites and control the media simply by providing, or denying, access, handing out invitations to State events and junkets or enabling formal and informal meetings. Even a PRO at the Reserve Bank of India has used this power with deadly effect for 23 years; so you can imagine how much more powerful the PM’s media advisor would be; he has many more goodies to dole out. The unhindered access to the PM and the ability to influence his opinion has captains of industry, business consultants, chairmen of banks and public sector undertakings, ministers, bureaucrats and a variety of social climbers, lobbyists and journalists pay obeisance to the man in that job. Dr Baru understood this power and revelled in it.
This book is an attempt to put this perspective by limiting the narrative to what he sees as the glory days of UPA-1 with a central role for himself in the story. If the Congress hadn’t gone ballistic about the book, it would have been just another addition to scores of memoirs published by puffed up bureaucrats who feel lost without the glory of their once-powerful posts.
Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of Moneylife. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2006 for her outstanding contribution to journalism. She can be reached at [email protected]