The Accidental Prime Minister

Not very often do we see policy memoirs of former Indian bureaucrats of their time in office. Other than the United States where former officials are placed on a carousel with one account following another, this is one tradition that has yet to be exported. And for this reason alone, Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister is worth the read for its atmospheric rendition of the policy corridors surrounding the PM’s office in New Delhi. Moreover, the trouncing of the UPA-II last month at the elections allows us to put this version and the events in context, providing readers a window into the incompetence and disaster that lay ahead for UPA-II, which are presaged from the memoir.

Baru’s book covers UPA-I, specifically his time as Manmohan Singh’s media and communications adviser, responsibilities not very dissimilar from that of a press secretary. Some issues and events get top billing, especially the Indo-US nuclear deal that required painstaking diplomacy on both sides, including several critical junctures involving high stakes diplomatic wrangling.
Baru provides a convincing account of the battles involving the politics of the deal given the feckless conduct of the left and ongoing skirmishes with party leadership with events eventually leading to Singh staking his political life at the altar in return for the deal’s progression. What we eventually come to see through these negotiations is a strong leader, political leader, willing to cut deals and make concessions whilst facing stiff resistance both within the party and coalition without sacrificing the core objective. Reading these portions begs us to ask why was this was not more commonly seen from the PM on other areas of importance. Why did he cede so much space on other areas while exerting himself with vigor in foreign affairs? And having seen UPA-II, even this robust foreign policy leadership did not sustain with momentum dissipating surrounding his leadership as the economy waned.

And this leads us to another puzzle: why did Manmohan Singh, after winning a convincing, if not, triumphant mandate in 2009 effectively cease from functioning as the PM during the second term? Baru’s account suggests that not standing for a seat in the lower house certainly undermined the PM’s standing but this does not explain why he proved to lead on many fronts in the first term. But his encounters with the PM as the second term commenced suggest that a more fundamental shift of power was taking place from the PMO to the party and one that would not only, as we know, damage the party’s and government’s capacity to function as a unit. In a startling conversation, Singh contritely concedes that there cannot be dual bases of power and has come to accept his place in the mystical hierarchy, that under the congress president, Sonia Gandhi. It is revealing and startling admission. For Indian voters that reposed their faith in the hands of a sturdy PM candidate, it amounts to a dereliction of duty. Even if citizens voted for the policies espoused by the congress they did, however, do so under the knowledge that Singh would be at the helm. To shift and distort lines of accountability and command without due process and recognition, as implied by Baru and confirmed by subsequent events, is disconcertingly at the very least. If anything, one can surmise that this move proved to be the beginning of the UPA-II’s undoing.

Other than the nuclear deal, Baru’s book gives readers and scholars of Indian politics, a better view of the fractious world that is coalition government. The left’s intransigence in the run up to the nuclear deal and the confirmation of several appointments, DMK’s ignominious efforts to place officials in key ministries to augment their pockets and fund their largesse within TN, Mamta Banerjee’s intermittent antics and even many within the congress party like Pranab Mukherjee that sought to create intimate fiefs away from the PMO, all point to a system that is structured for rent-taking and sharing than power sharing and policymaking. It is both a wonder that the government was able to achieve many important things including several years of robust growth and less a surprise that it found itself riven by scandals given the fractured nature of policymaking.

Surprisingly, despite negative coverage in the press and from congress officials, Baru presents a Manmohan Singh, who despite foibles, rises above the rest. Here’s a citizen who is deeply patriotic and grateful for the opportunities given to him; a leader who worked tirelessly to advance India’s interests globally; a statesman whose leadership and counsel was sought the world over, including the current occupant in the white house who waxed regularly over Dr. Singh; a politician who consistently surprised many across party lines; and a scholar whose analytic disposition and nature surpassed those of his subordinates and peers. But these eminent qualities would ultimately be overshadowed by his conduct as a prime minister, whose diffidence and reluctance to place the government’s agenda above the party’s would come to define his premiership, and perhaps, legacy.

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