A Tale of two books
By: – Ajay Jha
A noted British columnist said that “while informal conversations, jocular quips and even cantankerous remarks in private conversations get dissolved like some unpleasant gas in the air, written records proves to be an extremely dangerous disposition, capable enough to tar and tarnish the image of even the most mighty and influential people.”
The release of two books “The accidental Prime Minister” by his Ex- Media Advisor Dr Sanjaya Baru and Crusader or Conspirator by PC Parakh (former Secretary, Ministry of Coal) appeared to have missed this cardinal point. No wonder then that Congress leader Digvijaya Singh went to town accusing both of them of playing into the hands of opposition parties during the election campaign.
As Dr Manmohan Singh’s spin doctor and a trusted aide for four years, Baru depict a revelatory picture of how PMO used to function and how the government worked with two centres of power.Dr Manmohan Singh has also been compared with Pandit Nehru in the sense that is the only PM after Nehru who would be completing 10 years in office. But there has been a vast difference in the persona and style of functioning of both of them.
Pandit Nehru’s contribution to modern India, his style of functioning, his iconic persona, his reach and accessibility as well as public acceptability cannot and must not be compared with any of his successors. His own public stature both at national and international level was on a very high pedestal. Moreover, his image and contribution as a world leader through NAM and other noted forums was unparalleled.
Moreover, Pandit Nehru was the product of nationalist movement and when he headed Indian government, the people around him as well as the system, which evolved was entirely different. Nehru was the sole architect of his government and even today many policies of the Congress led government at the Centre have their roots in Nehruvian philosophy and mindset. Pandit-ji was the true son of the soil and he could interact and understand both—the poorest of the poor as well as the richest.
Dr Singh, on the other hand, has been a product of the system and came from the background of pure academics and most of the academicians are invariably theoreticians and with little experience of the hard realities of any polity. Pandit Nehru never lost any election in life, while Dr Singh fought elections only once from South Delhi where he was defeated by Dr Vijay Kumar Malhotra of BJP. He always came to Parliament via Rajya Sabha from Assam and did not think of contesting Lok Sabha elections even in 2009.
Dr Singh’s credentials have indeed been impeccable and, in fact, better than many prime ministers. His performance as the PM of UPA-I was far more impressive that NDA’s and years of ‘India Shining’ under Shri A.B Vajpayee. Yet the performance of UPA-II under him has already started becoming a point of national debate and discussions. Right from spiralling price of essential commodities to petro price hike, Naxal problem to Kashmir issue and even in the realm of foreign policy, many cracks have already started surfacing.
Right from environment minister Jairam Ramesh to home minister P. Chidambaram, coal minister Sri Prakash Jayaswal, defence minister A K Antony, telecom minister A Raja to transport minister Kamal Nath, slamming their own cabinet colleagues and the government on a few policy issues have been seen as bigger examples of embarrassment for UPA-II than cohesion and the saga still continues.
Moreover, Dr Singh has always been seen by the media as a reluctant prime minister who loved to work under the shadow and guidance of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Yet UPA-II has witnessed more stringent public criticism from the public right from its inability to handle the separatist movement to the rotting of food grains and so on.
A few columnists went to the extent of calling him a puppet prime minister as well. And that is what Sanjaya Baru too has tried to portray him as. But the fact is that it was the same Manmohan Singh who roared like a Lion on the issue of Indo-US Nuclear deal and thundered again on the question of brining in FDI in Retails.
It is well known that the Prime Minister of India exercises his power within the constraints placed by the political system inside which he or she operates. It is also true that that the Indian political system has become utterly complex in a coalition form of government where every coalition partners repeatedly asks for its pound of flesh. However, describing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as having “surrendered to political authority, at times displaying total lack of spine, during UPA1 and in a more pronounced way in UPA II” by one of his own closest aides who was in charge of ‘managing public opinion for the PM’ is not only a bad manner but also a betrayal of trust.
As a well- known commentator wrote “If you put Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the same stringent test as Baru subjects Manmohan Singh to, the result perhaps would be only marginally different! Take just a few instances where Vajpayee’s PMO looked no different from Singh’s. All you have to do is replace 10 Janpath with Nagpur headquarters of the RSS. Vajpayee, immediately after taking charge as PM in 1999, was not allowed to choose his finance minister by RSS. Instead, Yashwant Sinha was forced on him. How the PM’s political authority could be eroded virtually on day 1 of his tenure, you may well ask. Vajpayee was also asked by BJP’s alliance partner Shiv Sena to summarily sack Cabinet Minister Suresh Prabhu, who was doing a good job and had gained in popularity. Prabhu’s growing importance was not palatable to Bal Thakeray. Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, just had no say in the matter. Where was the PM’s famed authority?”
Secondly, if Manmohan Singh could be describes as spineless, then the same could also be said about Vajpayee showed the lack of spine when he wanted Modi removed after the 2002 Gujarat riots and Advani, backed fully by RSS, ensured the PM’s possible move was nipped in the bud. On such an important matter, which is said to have cost the BJP the 2004 elections, the political authority of the Prime Minister was not exercised.
The truth, however unpalatable, is that both Vajpayee and Manmohan had their authority circumscribed by the political system within which they operated. Of course it can be argued that relative to Manmohan Singh, Vajpayee did put up far more resistance to outside pressures, especially from RSS. Dr Singh possibly showed those qualities only when it came to pushing the nuclear deal to the extent of threatening to put his papers as a mark of protest.
Yet, Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister, made mistakes that were entirely his own. For instance he publicly admitted to the fact that it was he alone who took the decision to withdraw pricing of spectrum from the Group of Minister’s domain and reverted it to the Dayanidhi Maran, who was Telecom Minister appointed at DMK’s behest. That was one decision which later came to haunt the UPA and created space for A.Raja to play havoc with spectrum pricing and distribution. The fact remains that the Prime Minister could not put his foot down because some other reasons.
In the same way, the former coal secretary P.C.Parakh in his book titled “Crusader or Conspirator—Coalgate and other Truths”, alleged that Manmohan Singh just did not show courage and conviction spine to overrule the Coal Ministers, Dasari Narayan Rao and Shibu Soren, both of whom actively worked against the proposal to auction coal mines. Of course, in this there was obvious collusion from all coal-bearing states, some run by BJP and other regional parties like the BJD. Manmohan cannot escape the charge of moral abdication in a systemic sense even though he protected himself legally and bureaucratically.
It was the same Prime Minister who in an interview given to Journalist Laxmi Aiyar admitted that it was not he but Ahmed Patel, Political Secretary of Congress President Mrs Sonia Gandhi who played an important role in the allocation of coal block. But hell broke loose after that interview appeared in Mumbai Mirror and the paranoia of the PMO about the possible damage to Dr Singh’s image and reputation went to the extent of removing that interview from the Google page.
Baru’s frustration, even anger, comes out more because he was very close to Singh and therefore may have vicariously felt helpless when Singh capitulated to the party on many occasions. Baru’s relationship with the party had soured early on mainly because some senior journalists had reported back to top Congress leadership his antipathy to Sonia and her groupies. As a veteran commentator said “This would also have partially informed some of the judgments he makes about the party. Of course, the party leadership could have shown greater maturity in dealing with the PM’s media advisor who clearly was much more than a media advisor. But his removal in 2008 came more as an insult to Baru who had been so close to the PM”.
It also true that, many close friends and well-wishers of Dr Manmohan Singh felt exasperated by the PM caving in to the party time and again. The PM gave himself the impression, at times, that he was merely continuing in office to complete his full second term. The division of labour between Singh and Sonia worked reasonably well until the Congress’ re-election. Actually, the division of labour worked well when the going was good. The knives came out when things began to go awry for the Congress – especially after inflation and corruption reared their heads together during the second term. It was then that Singh proved totally ineffectual and the Congress badly felt the need to have a political Prime Minister.
The fact remains that the 10 years rule of Dr Manmohan Singh cannot be judged on Sanjay Baru’s account alone. Dr Singh may have appeared recluse, reticent or even ridiculous on a few moments on sheer face value. But the coming generation would indeed recall him as a person who learnt the art of managing contradictions better than VP Singh and yet he did not lose his sanity and composure unlike his many predecessors.
In short, the following points could be made out from these two book:-
1. The timing of both these his books were wrong. It smacked of some malafide intention to paint the PM in a rather crude manner.
2. Dr Baru remained privy to many things happening in PMO and he should have been rather succinct and reticent in describing a few things than being too blunt, brash and baring. In the same way, Parakh was Secretary in Coal ministry and an insider who knew everything.
3. Baru’s writing also amplified his sense of bitterness and resentment after being chucked out of PMO at the cost of Harish Khare who was Ahmed Patel’s appointee while Parakh got all the more venomous and revengeful once CBI raided his house in search of coal blocks allotment details and linkagaes..
4. However bigger the grievance, one does not belittle his Ex-boss in public. Dr Singh did not deserve that kind of treatment in this book as he has made out.
5. Magnanimity is a virtue which comes to very few authors. That was not seen in this book. Baru can be accused of having broken that trust of the PM at many places in this book.
6. The tragedy of our bureaucrats and technocrats has been the lure of politics after retirement. People like Baru and RK Singh and likes of NK Singh have only made it rather easier for many others. But that is a bad sign otherwise.
Above all, one does not berate and belittle someone under whom the author has worked for four years and remained custodian of his trust and confidence whatever the provocation. Many top notch people have worked under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. But they never made the flipper shades of their personality public. Dr Singh may not have been as decisive or flamboyant but he was certainly not a rubber stamp. He stands on Indo- US Nuclear deal and FDI in retails bear ample testimony to his stamp of authority.
(Ajay N Jha is a veteran journalist from both Print and Electronic media. He is Advisor to Prasar Bharti. The views expressed are his personal. His email id is Ajay N Jha <firstname.lastname@example.org> )