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The recent book: The Accidental Prime Minister by Sanjay Baru, the former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has ignited controversy.

Its main theme is that there were two centres of power — party president Sonia Gandhi and the prime minister Singh during the two consecutive terms of the UPA rule.

Though the opposition political parties as well as the loyalists of Gandhi-Nehru family are making much of this ‘revelation’, the basic point is not really new.

To some extent, it is inevitable in a parliamentary democracy (in communist regimes, the party is supreme) and the tensions have been resolved in India mostly by the same person (like Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Narsimha Rao, Rajiv Gandhi) holding the two posts at the same time or one of the persons (like Congress president Dev Kanta Barua declaring ‘Indira is India’) being totally subservient to the other.

Baru’s basic point is that Singh, being the accidental PM in UPA-I after Sonia declined the post in his favour and  since he had no political base of his own, he had reasons to be loyal to the family.

UPA-II was a different kettle of fish. UPA won the second term mainly on the popularity of Singh (specially his clean image) among the voters (in fact, the Congress manifesto in 2009 had only the picture of Manmohan Singh, not of Sonia or Rahul on its cover).

But Singh did not make use of this opportunity to exercise his due authority as PM in selecting cabinet colleagues, taking important policy decisions and getting rid of ministers and officials known to be indulging in corrupt practices.

He made compromises where he should have put his foot down, sullying in the process the image of the PM and that of the country.

If Baru is to be believed, Singh reconciled himself to the realisation that two centres of power creates confusion and that the prime minister has to give way to the party high command.

He also held the questionable view that if the coalition partners were not willing to replace the ‘corrupt’ ministers, he himself could not do much except remaining personally clean.

What would have happened if Singh had stood his ground and resigned, if necessary, is anybody’s guess.

At least one time – pushing the controversial nuclear deal - his threat of resignation worked and according to Baru, that was his finest hour.

The book is far more interesting in giving a lot of details on the way actual policy making is done in Delhi and elsewhere.

For example, it provides an almost blow by blow account of the bitter fight between the PM (convinced that the deal is in national interest) , the Left supporting the government from outside and a section of scientists and officials, over the nuclear deal with the USA under president George Bush and the way the Samajwadi Party was brought in to save the government when the Left was to withdraw support.

In this context, it unravels the machinations within the Left including how Prakash Karat maneuvered over the moderates like Jyoti Basu and Sitaram Yechury and the somersault of the editor of the Hindu over the issue.

The book also throws light on the back channel diplomacy that took place over the Kashmir issue between the successive governments in India and Pakistan.

Baru provides snippets of the petty power games played by ministers, officials and academics in official capacities over positions, powers and perks and how coalitions are sometimes formed among politicians and officials along regional and caste lines (like Tamils, Malayalees, Nairs, using Bengali Pranab Babu to influence the Bengali Leftists and so on).

The book shows how appointments in the Planning Commission — supposedly a body consisting of acknowledged experts from different fields — is subject to all kinds of political pulls and quotas (minorities, women, pro-business, Leftist).

Unlike in the nuclear deal, why did Singh not assert himself in controlling corruption in the allocation of spectrum, coal or contracts in the Commonwealth Games?

The compulsions of a coalition government does not explain it as that compulsion existed in the nuclear deal too.

Baru’s book does not provide an answer either as to why an otherwise honest, upright, highly qualified person ended up presiding over the biggest scams in post-independence India.

This reminds me of an interview of Amartya Sen in a channel. Asked why he did not ever work in an official capacity in the Indian government, his answer was that as an academic he was a seeker of truth.

If he had to work as part of the government, he would be forced to make compromises because things had to be done.

In this connection, he explicitly referred to his friend Manmohan whom he held in high esteem. Can this compulsion to get things done, even at the cost of sullying one’s personal image, explain what Singh did?

Even if one is willing to provide him this benefit of doubt, it would be extremely difficult to rationalise his eagerness to relinquish his post in favour of Rahul Gandhi (not in favour of any other Congress leader) and public declaration of willingness to serve under Rahul as prime minister , thereby legitimising the dynastic rule of the Gandhi-Nehru family.

Perhaps, as he hopes, history will be kinder to him than his contemporaries.

More than his achievements as the prime minister, he would be remembered as the architect of economic liberalisation as the finance minister in the Narasimha Rao government in 1991.

At the same time, it would remain an irony that, as Baru provides details in his book, the same Rao’s body was not allowed by the Nehru-Gandhi family to be cremated in Delhi as it would presumably tarnish the equation of the Congress rule with the Gandhi-Nehru family.

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