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The Man Who Knew Too Much

April 29, 2014

Nobody saw him coming. Amidst the jamboree that has come to define India’s election exercise, his book became a political hot potato. “The Accidental PM: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh”, written by Dr Sanjaya Baru on his years as Media Advisor to Dr Manmohan Singh led UPA1, was the wild card this election season.

The Accidental PM: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh

It packed the political punch – shared glimpses of the man infamous as a reticent and distant prime minister, lifted the smokescreen on the inner workings of the Prime Minister’s Office, dignified the Sonia-Manmohan equation but recognized its inherent inequality and described unapologetically the political manipulations, trials and triumphs which turned Manmohan Singh from “a nominated PM in 2004 to an elected one in 2009.”

It has been flying off the book shelves since its release mid April, but obviously, not without controversy. The BJP has used the book to fire its old political salvo branding Dr Singh as a weak PM subservient to his party chief Mrs Gandhi, while the Congress has rubbished the book as fiction, accusing it of opportunism. Sadly for this former trusted aide, the PM’s daughter has called his book an act of betrayal. Many have accused Dr Baru of cashing in on the election season and using the book to get even for the decision of not extending his term as Media Advisor in UPA2. He has expectantly rubbished all these claims.

For the press and the newsrooms, the triggered political hyperbole, was a guaranteed eyeball grabber. A welcome relief for viewers fatigued by the endless Modi vs Rahul coverage. Yet amidst all the din, the only statement an unfazed Baru made repeatedly, was that his book was the “biggest defence ever of the prime ministership of Dr Manmohan Singh.” By enlarge the media agreed. His colleagues both in the press and academia rallied in support. To quote one review, it said “ by design, the book is meant to salvage the reputation of India’s 13th Prime Minister”

When I sat down with him for a conversation last week, I asked him with all the media attention in the past few weeks what had troubled him the most. He replied with a smile, “the tv reporter stakeouts outside home, which I was unprepared for” and then his surprise that “no one apart from you today has asked me a single question on Dr Manmohan Singh’s biggest legacy- his singular contribution to India’s foreign policy.”

Apart from Strategic Affairs expert and columnist, C Raja Mohan, Dr Baru is perhaps the lone enunciator, of The Manmohan Singh Doctrine, a subject he has dedicated three chapters in his book to. He Believes that Dr Singh’s larger vision affected the thinking on India’s foreign policy goals and objectives, with an approach which was a definitive departure from the staid ideas of India’s strategic establishment. A vision and global stature, which he says, often got Dr Singh praise, but not enough credit. This because, his colleagues in the government and party “were wary of displeasing the Congress First Family.”

He elaborates in his book that by “linking India’s geo-political interests with its economic interests Dr Singh defined the new geo-economics of India’s grand strategy” in UPA1. The idea was economic opportunity. His legacy of ending India’s nuclear apartheid with the historic Indo-US Nuclear deal was not just about nuclear weapon status but also about access to high technology and nuclear energy. The initiatives like the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and the South Asian Free Trade Agreement was not just about accessing new markets or opening up India’s markets, but about building strategic partnerships and relationships of interdependence. There was also a renewed effort to build great power relationships with the US , China and Russia by redefining them as people to people and business to business rather than government to government.(pgs 170-171)

He says Dr Singh’s biggest regret in the realm of foreign policy was his inability to resolve the Kashmir dispute, despite having the blue print for the settlement. Now infamous as the Manmohan-Musharraf formula that pressed for soft borders as the crux of the resolution. Dr Singh’s repeated assertion that while borders could not be redrawn, they could be made irrelevant, will remain according to him, the cornerstone to any future settlement negotiated with Pakistan. However, he has stirred the hornet’s nest by speculating that the Gandhi family was never too keen to have the PM go down in history books for resolving the Kashmir issue.

He says to me “I have always felt that the Congress Party was hesitant to allow him the freedom required to conclude a deal. Here is an issue which could have been solved by Indira, but she didn’t, Rajiv Gandhi had tried but failed. Imagine here comes a Sardarji, who out of nowhere resolves a long-standing dispute which puts him in history books! That would be something!”

But Baru laments, that in UPA2 Dr Singh has had a lot more to regret. While his biggest complaint against the Indian PM is for not consolidating his political base after the Congress victory in 2009, he also rues the unraveling of a confused foreign policy in UPA 2 which backtracked on very many gains made in UPA 1. The lackluster relationship with US in UPA2 confounded further by the Khobragade episode, testy relationships in the neighbourhood, aggravated by the domestic politics flaring tensions with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and the anxiety in dealing with an assertive China; have been on open display to the world.

Signing off he says “ I wanted to write a balanced book – If I had written only the good things people would have accused me of other motives, now they are calling it opportunism. Irrespective of what people think, I believe this book is a great service to this nation”. Baru in his last few lines in the book argues that the Indian PM’s loyalty to Mrs Gandhi was perhaps misplaced and unrewarded. The reaction from the PMO to his book has perhaps made him reflect that there might be a price to pay for being loyal to fault.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed are of those of the author and do not represent the views of Elections.in.

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