The South Asia Channel

The Indian Election’s “Accidental” Newsmaker

Dr. Sanjaya Baru has become a surprising newsmaker this election season in India. His new book, "The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh," documenting Baru's years as the media advisor to the current Indian prime minister, has stirred up a political storm. The book is full of anecdotes that offer glimpses of the man infamous as a reticent and distant prime minister.

Many have questioned the timing and content of his book: If taken out of context, much of it appears to reinforce the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) claims that incumbent Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was a weak government, led by a weak prime minister who always fell in line with the wishes of Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi. The book lifts the smokescreen on the inner workings of the prime minister's office; dignifies the Sonia-Manmohan equation, but underlines its inherent inequality; and is unapologetic while describing the political manipulations, trials, and triumphs which helped Manmohan Singh transition from a nominated prime minister in 2004 to an elected one in 2009.

Baru's detractors have branded him opportunistic and motivated, and the office of the prime minister, of which he was once a trusted aide, has called his book an "act of betrayal" and "a  fiction." India's high-strung politicians and drama-hungry media networks have lapped up the controversy, giving Baru a hectic two weeks with the press.

Yet sitting down with Indian journalist Shruti Pandalai for a conversation, Baru remains unfazed, declaring unequivocally that "his book is the strongest defense of the Manmohan Singh government," and that the prime minister's foreign policy, especially the Indo-US nuclear deal, will be his lasting legacy.

 

Your book is perhaps the first detailed account of the goings-on of the prime minister's office in recent times, and it gives the reader a rare peak into the nature of India's reticent prime minister. Despite the criticism leveled at you for the timing and revelations of the book, do you stand by your decision that the story needed to be told?

In the era where India has embraced the Right to Information Act, I would not question the motivation of any writer, as long as the facts are right. My book has been called fiction, but I would be happy to be challenged by anyone on my facts. I don't think questions of timing and motive are relevant. The book should be judged by its merit and whether it contributes to the understanding and public awareness of how [the] Dr Singh-led UPA1 [the first United Progressive Alliance government led by Singh, from 2004-2009] functioned, and the contributions of Dr. Manmohan Singh to India's economic and political developments. Here is a man who, for the first time after Indira Gandhi, gets re-elected for a second term as prime minister. I have said this repeatedly that this book will be the strongest defense ever to be written of the Manmohan Singh government.

 

The book describes vividly how in his first term, Dr. Singh used to joke about being "an accidental Prime Minister." Yet you write, jokes aside, that Dr. Singh did not doubt he could do a better job than those other leaders around Sonia Gandhi. Then why this image of reticence?

I think he believed he had the life experience that the others had. He had worked with former Indian [prime ministers such as] Indira Gandhi [and] Narasimha Rao; he had served as the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha [India's upper house of parliament], served as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and was perhaps the only leader in the Congress party who apart from the range of experience had the international stature. He was in the South Commission, an Oxbridge alum and globally respected. This made him unique.

 

You have said the "politically fatal combination of responsibility without power and governance without authority" was Dr. Singh's Achilles' heel. And as his media advisor, you say "it would be easy to be his eyes and ears and tough to be his voice."

Yes. This is the essence of the failure of his prime ministership. He never empowered himself politically. He had the opportunity in 2009, where the mandate was his, the people had voted for him. He did not claim the mandate. As far as my role as the media advisor, it was easy to be his eyes and ears, but tough to be his voice, because that would be a political act. If you were the spokesperson of a powerful prime minister, nobody will question you, but when you are the political spokesperson of a politically weak prime minister, everybody questioned you and often they did, and I was often attacked. What the current president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, told me many years ago best explains this: "The image of the country depends on the image of government, which depends on the image of the prime minister."

 

Dr. Singh is a highly regarded in international circles. You describe a stoic scene during the historic Indo-US nuclear deal negotiations where he walks into the US Congress to a standing ovation and delivers a speech that was constantly interrupted by applause. But in his second term the Indo-US relationship seemed fraught with tensions. What changed?

I haven't said this as explicitly in my book, but I believe in the realm of foreign policy UPA2 [the second United Progressive Alliance government led by Singh, from 2009-2014] subverted UPA1 across the board. Whether it is our relationship with the US, China, ASEAN, or even our own neighbors, UPA2 did not build on the gains of UPA1. The Nuclear Liability Bill, in the context of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, is a good example of taking two steps back after achieving a historic deal. Even with China, it was a tough act to keep a balance, but till the border row last year where India toughened its stand, we had acted like push-overs and let the relationship drift. However, I still say, no one can take away the Indo-US nuclear deal, which always will be the legacy of Dr. Manmohan Singh.

 

You mention China, and I recall a line in the book where you say he said to you "he did not want to make the same mistakes Nehru made." How do you think Dr. Singh's government has handled the relationship with China?

As I said, there was a period of drift, particularly in UPA2, which ended in the last two years, and he handled the relationship well by and large. Much more focus has been put into handling the stability in the relationship. If you look at the last ten years, overall Manmohan Singh has managed the India-China relationship well.

 

You have devoted three chapters in the book on the Indian prime minister's vision of foreign policy, and are perhaps one of the few advocates of "the Manmohan Singh doctrine" -- including giving him credit for a term "Indo-Pacific," which has acquired great currency in recent times, with the US pivot to Asia.

I believe very few people in the Indian foreign policy establishment openly credit the prime minister for his contributions in foreign policy. [They are] always looking over their shoulder to ensure they don't upset the Nehru-Gandhi family, as an entire generation of them have lived under the shadow of Nehru, Indira, and then Rajiv Gandhi. I believe that the fact that Dr. Singh has made a major contribution to the shift in Indian foreign policy thinking is not something many concede.

 

So what are the highlights of the Manmohan Singh doctrine?

I certainly think the redefinition of our entire relations with the our neighborhood, from East Asia to West Asia, is the most important change. We have redefined that relationship in economic terms, in effect making even Pakistan understand that economics is the core of our relationships -- with the [Most Favored Nation] status, for example. We have learnt from China, that while it might be seen as threatening to many neighbours, it is also seen as an opportunity. For a long time, India was seen threatening to our neighbors, as a hegemon if you like; the shift that Dr. Manmohan Singh brought about is to also portray India as an opportunity in economic terms. While the momentum of many of those initiatives was not sustained in UPA2, we certainly made a massive headway.

 

Your book talks about India's position on Iran, and the domestic blowback from political parties on India's vote against the Iranian nuclear program at the International Atomic Energy Agency during UPA1. How has India balanced the US and Iran in UPA2?

Iran, I think, is the only case where India's exposition has been that of a non-hypocritical foreign policy. I mention how Dr. Singh deliberately reduced in this context the yearnings of India to be a member of [the UN Security Council] in his speeches; he also virtually removed any mention of the word non-alignment. So his approach was that you have to be honest in your expression of national interest. UPA2, as I said, had many setbacks, but [as] I was not in office then I cannot argue why.

 

Let's skip to the issue of Kashmir. You say the Manmohan-Musharraf formula was close enough to seal a historic settlement. However, you also speculate that it perhaps didn't go through, because a Nehru-Gandhi needed to seal the deal.

Yes, that is a speculative statement, right or wrong. I however believe that the Manmohan-Musharraf formula is not past its date. Whenever the Kashmir issue is finally resolved, it will be resolved within the framework of soft borders as decided by the two leaders. So when Dr. Singh said borders cannot be re-drawn, that borders can be made irrelevant, that's the essence of the final settlement of the Kashmir issue. So while Pakistan may reject this idea and claim that this was not something Musharraf accepted, I think everyone knows that is the only solution, and hopefully Dr. Singh and his colleagues will get the credit in time for putting this idea forward. I always felt the party leadership was a little hesitant to let the prime minister conclude the deal.

 

So what will Manmohan Singh be remembered by, and what will be his greatest regret?

Well, not being able to normalize the Kashmir issue will be his greatest regret, definitely. He had a larger vision. Remember here is a man who in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks continued to press for talks with Pakistan, despite attacks from within his own party. He knew his mind. When he is no longer PM, he will have time to reflect that he had good ideas, but not the political base. But as I said, the main complaint in my book remains [that] he chose not to create that political base. So yes, he suffered from misplaced and unrewarded loyalty. The Indo-US nuclear deal will remain his biggest legacy, and his singular contribution remains in the realm of foreign policy.

 

Shruti Pandalai is a television journalist and foreign policy analyst currently working with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based think tank. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent views of the institute. Follow her on Twitter at @shrutipandalai.

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