In just under a week, three new books have explosively exposed the murky underbelly of what was the Congress-led UPA government. Their titles themselves tell the story: “The Accidental Prime Minster – The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh”, “Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and other Truths” and “Gas Wars – Crony Capitalism And The Ambanis”
The storm unleashed by Dr Sanjaya Baru, former press advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, half way through a crucial general election will not end in a hurry. Dr Baru’s book, “The Accidental Prime Minister — The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh” has hogged media headlines for two days by giving an inside account of how Dr Singh was systematically ‘defanged’ by Sonia Gandhi during United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-2, which returned to power in 2009, in the wake of a global financial crisis. In his television interviews, Dr Baru has argued that much of what he wrote has already been written by the media.
The same may be true of former Coal Secretary PC Parakh’s book, “Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and other Truths.” But what both these books do, is to add key details from the inside. The coalgate exposes, were largely a follow up of the findings of the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) in a brilliant phase under Vinod Rai. The media did a great job of adding colour and detail, mainly through unnamed sources. But this is the first time that insiders have provided a detailed account of what went on.
The third book, “Gas Wars – Crony Capitalism And The Ambanis” by author and filmmaker Paranjoy Guha Thakurta along with Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri is not an inside account. But makes up for it with a detailed and well researched account of the significance of the privatisation of natural gas, the battle over gas pricing, the gold-plating of project costs and the sudden vanishing of the vast gas reserves that were to make India self-sufficient, just a global gas prices began to soar. Despite the many allegations by Arvind Kejriwal about gas prices and the Ambanis, the inescapable conclusion after reading this book too is the complete failure of UPA to control crony capitalism and how industrialists were dictating and divvying up India’s natural resources among themselves.
All three books confirm one fact -- Dr Manmohan Singh was heading a government in which he had "little" political authority and decision were dictated by Sonia Gandhi who had little public accountability. If Dr Baru says, Dr Singh had become an “object of ridicule having little authority but no power”, Mr Parakh, against whom the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has registered a case in coal block allocation, writes about a meeting where the PM expressed anguish about the humiliation of top bureaucrats by politicians and said, “he (Singh) faced similar problems every day. But it would not be in the national interest if he was to offer his resignation on every such issue.”
Mr Parakh goes on to say, "By continuing to head a government in which he (Dr Singh) had little political authority, his image has been seriously dented by 2G scam and coal-gate although he has had a spotless record of personal integrity. I do not know if the country would have got a better Prime Minister if Dr Manmohan Singh had resigned, instead of facing the humiliation of his own ministers not implementing or reversing his decision”.
The timing of the release of the books, when key states are still to vote in the general elections have added an interesting dimension to Indian politics. So far, the Election Commission (EC) has barred anything that could influence voters – the election code bars the inauguration of new infrastructure projects. The previous election saw the EC asking all elephant statutes installed by the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh to be covered up. This time around it objected to the symbolism of ‘chai pe charcha’ and banned these discussions. There are also restrictions on exit polls. But the Congress cannot even complain to the EC when a set of insiders choose to reveal explosive details to the public. All it can do it ascribe motives to the authors.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition may gleefully use the contents of these books to target the Congress in the short term, but they would be foolish to ignore their significance. These inside accounts shatter the cosy understanding between the ruling party and the opposition over what issues would be used to target one another. It signals to the political class that bureaucrats pushed to the brink will not be so kind as to time their memoirs for a time when they are largely irrelevant. They will come back to bite you when and when it really hurts.
Part of this policy of omerta (silence) between Indian political parties was that they would not dig up shady deals of key politicians and their families – so sons, daughters, sons-in-law, bigamous marriages etc were never mentioned; not the many business deals that have seen each politicians declaring significantly higher assets even without holding an office of power. Kejriwal was the first to shake them out of this complacency and its impact is there for all to see.
The opposition parties are definitely guilty of giving tacit support to the UPA’s shady decisions by failing to oppose bad policies in a sustained and systematic manner. No, the thundering rhetoric in television studios and outside parliament does not count. A recurring image in the televised proceedings in Parliament, on Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha television, has been that of empty benches, dozens of bills passed without discussion and frequent boycott of proceedings on the most flimsy grounds. The opposition was complicit in this. They were equally supportive of the crony club of industrialists who had found their way into parliament, often as Rajya Sabha members. It is no secret that many political parties