“The Accidental Prime Minister” by Sanjaya Baru

This book, so appropriately titled, “ The Accidental Prime Minister,” created a sensation when it first came out in April 2014. After all it was the first book in a long, long time which had as its subject the Prime Minister of India, the world’s largest democracy.  Besides, it was written by an “insider” and a senior official at that. Sanjaya Baru, a well-known journalist and former editor of the Financial Express and the Business Standard had been hand-picked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be his Media Adviser and served in that capacity from May 2004 to August 2008.

There can’t be a better summary of the book than it’s by line, “The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh.” I read it recently and many important changes have happened since April 2014 not the least being the trouncing of the Congress Party in the General Elections of 2014. The Party for which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have been the reluctant nominee for the third term ended up with a mere 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, its worst performance ever.

I mention this not because it is covered in the book, which it obviously isn’t but because this is closely linked to the central theme of the book which is Manmohan Singh’s position and influence in the Congress Party or the lack of it, which brought about his undoing. Did Manmohan Singh, for reasons best known to himself, accept happily to be the fall guy of sorts while holding office. One understands from the book that the objectives of the Congress party were crystal clear. The successes of any schemes initiated by the Government, which were in any case populist in nature, went to the Gandhis, (Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her heir apparent son, Rahul), anything that went wrong would be placed at Manmohan Singh’s door.

This book is about the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which governed India for 10 years with Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minster and Sonia Gandhi as the Congress President. Baru writes at length of how he tried to convince a reluctant Prime Minister to market his image. Manmohan Singh initially at any rate shunned publicity of any sort and was quite happy to see the Party President get all the credit, accepting, as he did, that her position as the head of the ruling party was supreme even as he was the nation’s Prime Minister. This led, especially in his second term after 2009 to huge embarrassment. One cannot forget Rahul Gandhi brushing off an ordinance approved by the Cabinet and the PM as “complete nonsense” publicly.

Baru’s book portrays a well-meaning man who was better off in his field of economics but all at sea in the hustle and bustle of politics. The fact that he never won an election to the Lok Sabha undermined his authority and Baru chronicles how many Congress men took advantage of his position knowing that the Prime Minister would agree with what was commanded by Sonia Gandhi. The only time Dr. Singh stuck out his neck was in the case of the Nuclear Deal, an issue Baru covers in considerable detail.

The book left the impression I carried about Manmohan Singh reinforced by what I read in the book. Manmohan Singh, as the many jokes doing the rounds about him at that time allowed the office of the Prime Minister to be devalued. As Baru says he could not stand by and see the Prime Minster ridiculed in public which was one of the reasons he wrote this book. He writes that Sngh actually did a lot of good for the country. Baru writes, ” it is natural for a political leader to be either admired or hated, but a politician should never become an object of ridicule.” Who can forget that cartoon showing  a meeting in progress with the board outside imploring people to keep their cell phones in “Manmohan Singh Mode” which became another synonym for remaining silent. Baru tells us, “( about the PM)…. he himself rarely spoke in an assertive manner. Over time, his silences and his overt shyness, seemed to be more strategy than the habits they had probably been, to begin with.”

Another interesting theme that emerges from the book is that Manmohan Singh was not that naive as he was made out to be. He was a survivor. Digvijaya Singh, a far more prominent Congress leader than him (before he became PM) , said of Manmohan Singh, ” I do not know if he is an over rated economist, but I know he is an underrated politician.”

All in all, an enjoyable read. Baru writes well and is knowledgeable about politics and economic in India by virtue of his background. I did feel sometimes whether he over rated his own position in those days especially when he writes about the numerous occasions when the Prime Minister is said to have consulted him about various appointments of key personnel and on issues.

 

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