PM in his labyrinth

PM in his labyrinth

In his controversial tenure, our two-time PM Manmohan Singh has often been seen as a meek head of state. AVS Namboodiri reviews Sanjaya Baru’s ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ to get an account of behind-the-scenes action in the corridors of power.

Sanjaya Baru’s namesake of the Mahabharata period reported on a war within a family without his personal views and interpretations colouring the great narrative. Baru, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s media advisor during the first term of his 10-year tenure, uses epic imagery at the end of his account, The Accidental Prime Minister, the Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh. But he makes his judgment and comment too.

He thinks Manmohan Singh may go down in history as Bhishma, a good, wise and brave man, but on the wrong side, defending a disreputable lot and finally making an inelegant exit. It may be taken as a compliment, the best that can be said in a bad scenario, but may ultimately serve as only a left-handed compliment.

The kind of book that Baru has written is new in India. Not many Indian officials who have served in important positions in the administration have written about their experiences. Such accounts are common in other countries and have helped to throw light on how policies are framed and implemented, and decisions are taken, and to show how the personalities of decision-makers influenced the course of events.

The lack of familiarity of Indian readers with that genre of writing may partly account for the controversy created by Baru’s book. Baru was as much an accidental adviser as Singh was an accidental prime minister. Journalists are not insiders of a system, but only its observers. Baru had an inside view also of the government system, though it may be assumed that he did not have a full view of many things. But he perhaps had enough of it to come to the conclusion that Singh was not his own man in his office and that the office did not make him, as it did accidental bearers of many great offices in history.

The conclusion is hardly revelatory. It is well-known that the real power and authority behind Singh was the party president, Sonia Gandhi. The book details how such a usurpation was effected and how the prime minister accepted the situation of subservience to an outside centre of power and in the process devalued his office. The only important issue on which he stood his ground and defied the wishes of the party president was the nuclear deal with the US. His threat of resignation worked and the party had to risk the loss of government on the issue. It showed determination could trump, but the assertion did not last.

Baru’s book shows how pervasive the subversion of the system was. The prime minster had no control over the selection of ministers and the officials of his own office. He could not exercise his authority over ministers and influence their decisions. Since the ministers and officials owed their positions to the party leader, they reported more to her than to him. Even when it was accepted that he headed a coalition government and compromises had to be made, this was an illegitimate situation.

The relationship between the party and the government is vexed and complicated in many parliamentary democracies. Parties cannot be blamed for insisting that their policies should be followed and implemented by governments. But the cabinet system of governance imposes a separation between politics and the executive.

The balance between the two is difficult to locate and it is for the head of the executive to find it. In Baru’s account, Singh failed to find it. Baru’s book would be wasted if this lesson is not learnt by future prime ministers, because coalition governments are likely to be the order of the day in the coming years. Future heads of government will also have to deal with political agendas and interests, which the constitutional system will not be able to accommodate.

Singh is not the country’s first or only accidental prime minister. The tenures of some of them, except Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, would not call for serious study. Singh’s tenure deserves attention because he lasted two full terms and he had sterling qualities of head and heart which most others did not have. Baru says he still admires him for them. But he feels cheated that Singh could not make use of his strengths and became a weak prime minister.

The timing of the book and the motives of the writer have invited adverse comments. They have also fed the controversy over the book. But these are not very relevant in evaluating a book. Even if Baru’s motives are not the best, it is difficult to contest the story.

Baru says Singh told him this when he offered the media advisor’s job to him: “I know I will be isolated from the outside world. I want you to be my eyes and ears. Tell me what I should know, without fear and favour.” Seen now, the words have a touching and poignant ring. We do not know whether Baru kept the faith in him and told Singh all that he should have known. But he has told the country something it should know, with an account of the years of solitude of a prime minister in his labyrinth.

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