In His Own Image

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]

8 years ago
kudos to Ms Sucheta for this article--may your pen get mightier and mightier-
sivaraman anant narayan
8 years ago
Agree with DS Sarao's review of Sanjaya Baru's book.While the main book was largely in support and praise of the PM,(in fact Manmohan Singh, as a person comes out very well though shrewd in his own way) the Epilogue seems like a mere collection of what appeared in the national press, without the insider's perspective of whatever happened in UPA-2. Finally every author will only choose to write what he perceives as appropriate and not write on matters where he didn't play any role or which would in any way make him seem small.
R Balakrishnan
8 years ago
Brilliant analysis and perspectives. Thanks , Sucheta.
MG Warrier
8 years ago
This comment from me is not specific to this article or the book “Accidental Prime Minister”. Of late, gossips, allegations, criminal charges and observations made by people who ‘missed bus’ or overlooked while considering ‘tickets’ or positions for various reasons are all getting mixed up. The ‘selective’ disclosures by people claiming to be in possession of ‘classified’ information and the timing of such disclosures is more nauseating. High time some voluntary agency scans such disclosures and educate the AAM aadmi who gets carried away by the spicy disclosures. Some follow up of serious charges also is called for.
Replied to MG Warrier comment 8 years ago
You have a point, I think the public is really fed up with the antics of all these people!!
8 years ago


If you are looking for a ' tell all ' book which has juicy tidbits, harsh judgements and stories about intrigues, state secrets, political conspiracies or a book which specifically identifies scheming politicians and bureaucrats responsible for the lacklustre performance of the UPA 2 with an 'Accidental Prime-Minister' at the helm, then Sajaya Baru's book will definitely not give you that satisfaction.

Read between the lines and you may be able to make your own deductions as to why an Oxford and Cambridge educated intellectual, a one time chief economic adviser to the Government of India, a distinguished professional who had held the post of economic affairs secretary in the union finance ministry, a man who had been the governor of the RBI, the deputy chairman of the planning commission and who had built an enviable reputation as an honest, progressive and confident finance minister and then later as the PM of a nation with one of the fastest growing economies of the world, ultimately chose a path of least resistance accepting ‘que sera sera’- what ever will be will be.

Three things become clear once you have gone through the book. Firstly, with no axe to grind, Sanjaya Baru's loyality as the Press Secretary (2004-08) to the Prime minister or as the 'Adviser to the PM' as he would like to be called, comes out clearly. There are no personal attacks on the PM other than the fact that Baru comes out quite critical on the style of functioning of Dr Manmohan which has ultimately caused immense damage to the PMs own standing and credibility. Baru is also no whistle blower and there is nothing in the book not already known about the 'dirty tricks department', that unholy mix of politicians and bureaucrats which caused the Prime minister to be sidelined from most decision making itself !! Secondly, as you go through the book, the equally well known IAS vs IFS sniping coupled with the Indian bureaucracies concern with status, protocol, ego and turf battles rather then in running the country becomes evident. The infighting in the PMO with the never ending power play between the NSA, the principal secretary and the PMs special adviser on internal security also find a mention in chapter 3 of the book. The book is certainly not an expose and need not be confused with any obligation of 'omerta' or any debt which Baru owes to the Indian bureaucracy, the PMO or the Congress party, whatever the PMO or his detractors may now say. Thirdly, the crass political ambitions of men with mediocricity and opportunism as their hall mark (Arjun Singh, Chidambaram, Mukherjee, Chavan, Shinde,Anthony – to name a few) are again left for the reader to deduce from the factual narrative of events and incidents as they unfold in the book.

In a country where more than a 100 out of the 523 Parliament members actually stand accused of crimes and the vast majority of the politicians and bureaucrats have steadfastly and with single mindedness of purpose steered this great nation of a billion careening along the path of destruction, Baru's book only reinforces the common mans perception that the PM was too good a man, too gentle a man, too weak a man who despite the entire country knowing that he was being used by an ambitious, unscrupulous and corrupt cabal, for some unknown reason did not have the gumption to stand up and say -' this much and no more'.

But Baru’s book also fails to answer that question which has plagued the nation for the last five years --- what was the compulsion of Dr Manmohan Singh to accept the post of the PM in the first place, and more importantly, what was the ‘raison d'être’ for the good Doctor to continue as the PM after he had been virtually sidelined from all Governmental decision making processes, foreign affairs, economic policies and did not even have the freedom of choosing his own team or making his own cabinet appointments. Baru himself, by his own admission, was a victim when the PM, during his second term, despite sounding him out to rejoin the PMO again as his media adviser, could not push through Baru’s appointment.

With each passing day unearthing a myriad of scams( 2G, Coal-gate, Adarsh, Bellary, Hawala, Satyam, Commonwealth Games, Swiss accounts and black money : the list is endless) and Manmohan Singh’s Government becoming synonymous with bribery, cronyism, kleptocracy, electoral frauds and nepotism ; should the PM have continued in an hostile atmosphere where he was being made the fall guy?? In chapter 8 (Promises to Keep) of his book, Baru very aptly tells us how the gains of UPA 1 and the advantage of India’s unprecedented growth were being frittered away as the PM slowly lost control (gave away?) not only over the fiscal policy but the functioning of the Government machinery itself. Add to this the Governments populist ‘Sat Sutra ‘ programmes --- Bharat Nirman, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Jawahar Lal Nehru National Urban Renewable Mission, National Rural Health Mission, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Mid Day Meal Programme ; all being handled at the central and state level by politicians and bureaucrats out to make a quick buck in the free for all fiscal mela gleefully implemented first by Mukherjee and then Chidambaram as the finance ministers.

Recount the incident of the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi calling the ordinance to amend the Representation of Peoples' Act, 1951 as 'nonsense' hours before the PM was scheduled to meet the American President (chapter 13 : pages 282 /283). A clearly orchestrated event by the Congress party to assuage the public outburst against the Governments bill (whose Government was it anyway??) which had sought to remove constraints on law breakers becoming law makers. For Dr Manmohan Singh of the Congress party, this was another uppercut which he took silently without responding. The nation had waited with baited breath for him to return expecting that now at-least he would assert himself, nothing happened. For a man who had earned the respect of his own countrymen for standing by his convictions and inner conscience to push through the 123 Nuclear Deal (chapter 11), by now it was clear that the time had come for Dr Manmohan to leave but he chose to stay. Why? As Baru has mentioned very aptly --- ' when the horse you are riding becomes a Tiger it is difficult to dismount'.

Finally , why did Baru write this book?? As he himself has said, like millions of Indians he too ' feels tragically cheated that he (Dr Manmohan) has allowed himself to become an object of such ridicule in his second term in office, in the process devaluing the office of the prime minister'. Harsh words these, but true none the less. Why did Baru leave the PMO in 2008? That too at the height of Dr Manmohans popularity and when Singh was King ?? Though not mentioned clearly anywhere in the book, the signs that Baru was not a welcome fixture in the inner clique that was slowly taking over the functioning of the PM and the PMO itself, were already becoming evident. Or as Baru quotes M S Swaminathans’ response to Indira Gandhis’ querry as to why the former wanted to quit---‘Madam, it is best to leave when every one asks you why rather then when!’.

A well articulated book which can be easily read in one sitting. Quite educative and with a lot important facts related to mismanagement of the economy, the tepid and reactive foreign policy, the disenchantment of the international community with the country, the PMs attempts, helplessness and lack of will to sort his house in a hostile political atmosphere vitiated by coalition compulsions, tainted ministers at the central and state levels - all of this cleverly camouflaged by Sanjaya Baru to avoid controversies. Indira was made an accidental PM in 1966 by a scheming group of elder politicians thinking that they will be able to manipulate her at will. She turned out to be the strongest PM the country ever had who had neatly turned the tables on her manipulators . Dr Manmohan was chosen by Sonia because he had no political ambitions and would never be a threat to the Nehru – Gandhi family while Rahul waited in the wings to become a PM. She was right in her selection. Good men are not necessarily good leaders and conversely, good leaders are not necessarily good men. Posterity remembers Stalin and Hitler as good leaders but not as good men. Dr Manmohan will be remembered only as a good man—perhaps it is better this way.
Tantum History Mos Tribuo Denique Censura (Only History Will Give The Final Judgement)
Replied to D S SARAO comment 8 years ago
Very Enlighting Details From You, Thanks.
It also Shows that High Poteadsitioned Buereucrats Toe Politicians for Their Personal Growth, which is Harmful to Indians. Indians Want Every Bueucrat To Study Issue Meticulously , give his Reviews , Keeping INDIA's Growh in Mind .
Replied to D S SARAO comment 8 years ago
"History knows that it can wait for more evidence and review its older verdicts; it offers an endless series of courts of appeal, and is ever ready to reopen closed cases".
8 years ago
I Firmly Believe that The Persons Responsible for 1100 ( Digvijay's Figure ) of Students Suicides in TELANAGANA , as the SUicidt's Started / Happened after Chidamberam Announced Cabinets Decision on Dec 9 th to give Seperate TELANGANA, as SONIA's BirthDay Gift and Later Retracked , Making Students got Ambitious Immence Hopes and Later Miserably Disappointed on FM's Backtracking.Till Dec 9 th , there was No Hope/ Belief, as Every Decade Some Politician Rakes up/ Agitates on this Issue and Stops on His Getting Political Posts.Pitiably NO Prosection on Sonia and Chidamberam .
Udit C
8 years ago
The accidental media adviser?
Anil Agashe
8 years ago
Thank you for writing a very objective review. The Congress overreacted as usual and without reading the whole book.
Media as usual quoted what suited them.
Manmohan Singh's biggest fault is his decency and sense of loyalty. Qualities that we normally say one must have!
I hope one day he will write his side of the story. If he does it will be great contribution to the history of the nation. However I seriously doubt that he would write his memoirs.
8 years ago
Kindly share the official RTI reply of B.P Meena, DAVP.Who had filed the RTI application in this regard. Such applications need to be filed in the States too.
Nagesh Kini
8 years ago
Dr. Baru has stated the obvious that earlier none thought it fit to be put into public domain. The catch was in the timing of its release. The author rightly says it was the publisher's final call and it paid off!
Post the Emergency every coalition was indeed nothing short of being "khichhdi". One only has to read the 1978 Vilas Publication "All the Janata Men".
Nagesh Kini
Replied to Nagesh Kini comment 8 years ago
All the Janata men is authored by Janardhan Thakur.
8 years ago
cONGRESS pARTY I.E MADame Sonia Gandhi has got her People Appointed ,is Rather Unbelievable.
They Tried to Pass a LAW empowering them to Appoint Judiciary Posts, but That Bill is NOT Passed.BJP may not Pass Such Bill.
Congrats to Dr. Bura for bringing out about Sonia's Decisions as Cabinet Decisions.Simply Because Sonia Decided to Create TELANGANA,action Strategy,All Cabinet Ministers Ran Pille Strater to Post to Complete Formalities and get Bill Passed.Ofcouse Her Strategy MIserably Failed,even Unable to get Candidates to Contest in Seemadhra and TRS distanced itself from Congress in Telanagana.Are we In Democracy?
8 years ago
Document proves Sonia has ultimate powers

Mathrubhumi News revealed through documents that party President Sonia Gandhi gave the final consent for advertisements that described central government’s achievements. Sanjay Baru alleged that Sonia Gandhi appointed an IAS officer Pulok Chatterjee in Prime Minister’s Office to influence the central cabinet decisions.

B.P Meena (Media Executive & CPIO) replies to an RTI query that

"Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity The designs of the advertisemtns are sent by the concerned client minstries/departments after due approval from the PMO and the office of the UPA chairperson".

According to Mathrubhumi News It is against law that a person who does not bear constitutional position says opinion and takes decision on governmental policies.

8 years ago
Document proves Sonia has ultimate powers

Mathrubhumi News revealed through documents that party President Sonia Gandhi gave the final consent for advertisements that described central government’s achievements. Sanjay Baru alleged that Sonia Gandhi appointed an IAS officer Pulok Chatterjee in Prime Minister’s Office to influence the central cabinet decisions.
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