The Accidental Prime Minister: India’s West Wing

By Sunil Kumar

Now that the dust has settled over India‘s elections; and a new government is firmly in the saddle; it’s time to talk about Sanjaya Baru’s “The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making And Unmaking of Manmohan Singh“.

For anybody who’s seen the super-quick American TV show “The West Wing”; politicking on a daily basis will not come as much of a surprise. But India’s compulsions are different as everybody knows; yet practically everybody I see resorts to Yank comparisons as and when they feel like it. The ways of the glib and sales schmuck world. We are a Westminster style democracy with Indian characteristics; where the world revolves in vortices of power determined by sycophancy and legacy. Sab Ganda hai par Dhanda hai yeh!

Sanjaya Baru’s memoir was insightful into the power play behind closed doors. Shri Manmohan Singh; a scholarly figure born in Gah, Pakistan was accidentally thrust into the role of the Prime Minister by the Grand Old Khap Party(The Congress) in its surprise victory circa 2004. Mr. Baru; a former journalist got to observe the workings of the PMO at close quarters in his role as the media/communications adviser.

Singh; according to Baru’s account comes across as most people have tended to characterise him; a puppet with good intentions. SiThe author seems to be largely sympathetic to Singh’s predicament; as he gradually settles into the Delhi throne. The PMO; composed of the Prime Minister and a few bureaucrats seems to be systematically sidelined by other centres of power; and Singh’s foray into international terrain is constantly hampered by the compulsions of coalition politics; as well as internal dissent in a party known for its legendary devotion to a single family. 

 

Pitching for ministries in the Union Cabinet is a pretty standardized affair. Getting close to a few ingratiated cronies gets many ministers(intellectual or otherwise) berths in our Oxbridge PM’s cabinet. Baru asserts repeatedly that his intentions are for Manmohan Singh to become his own man; an assertive factor in the Congress powerplay equation. However Singh has reconciled himself to 15 seconds of fame; letting the people who have often been named hog the limelight. Mr. Baru talks about the three Malayalees who played an important part in the early years of the Manmohan era. Former NSA Dixit, Rajiv Gandhi’s IB head and internal security adviser Narayanan and former principal secretary T.K.A Nair formed a triumvirate which the Telegu Brahmin Baru closely observed. 

The IFS; the IAS and the IPS; the three public services which form the backbone of this country’s administration have an internal power struggle and pecking order; according to Baru’s account. Today’s news talks about a tussle between the CBI and the CBDT; with some of the premier investigative agency’s people in the dock for alleged irregularities. Baru’s attempts to shield Manmohan Singh from his own party’s clever politicking and manipulation come to naught; as the former PM appears to be a loyal adherent to the party cause.

The former home minister Shivraj Patil’s penchant for dressing and other colorful anecdotes relating to the author’s fondness for cigars and mojitos spice up the otherwise serious narrative. Handling the media is apparently easy and fraught with unexpected danger. Baru in his own words attempts to plant stories and deftly manage Singh’s interactions with the world at large.

 

Picking up some cues from Vajpayee’s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya and former NSA Brajesh Mishra; Baru talks about the PMO’s position vis-a-vis the fourth estate. Some editors are more equal than others; and Singh even resorts to scolding NDTV‘s Prannoy Roy(a former official in Singh’s finance ministry) like a principal; according to Baru. Air India One; the country’s “sarkari” transport; tutored answers and personal equations; are mentioned by Baru.

 

The internal coterie that determined Congress policy to visibly devastating effect in UPA-2; was in full force during UPA-1; Baru maintains. Seating arrangements can rankle senior officials; and the Delhi durbar is engaged in acrimony over trifles.

 

The nuclear deal is discussed in detail; hoopla which we have forgotten a few years later. Obama’s ascent into the White House seems to have dampened the bonhomie generated by the more forthright Bush; and given the current criticism over his role in Iraq; India has to again tread alone into the woods; as it has always done. The former PMO has dubbed this book as a betrayal and fiction; which again sows the seeds of doubt among the “aam aadmi”. Baru’s observations are very succinct and appear to be honest; but in the murky world of the country’s politics; anything is true and often is. All for today!

 

 

 

 

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