By B.G. Verghese
Sanjay Baru, former Press Adviser to the Prime Minister has been pummelled and traduced this past week for all the wrong reasons. “The Accidental Prime Minister” does not stab Dr Manmohan Singh in the back but constitutes a reasoned, balanced, sensitive and sympathetic account of his stewardship of UPA-I and an assessment of his, alas, diminished role in UPA-II. There is nothing in the book that was not already public knowledge in recent years, at home and abroad, and commented upon, often out of context and in a spiteful and demeaning manner,by Baru’s current critics.
The Prime Minister and his family understandably feel wounded today, but a re-reading of the book in tranquillity may lend perspective to an honest political biography that fortunately avoids hagiography and does the nation a service by telling the story as it was. At the end, Dr Singh emerges as man who unselfishly and quietly rendered the state considerable service but, latterly, tragically failed to assert his authority above the din of “coalition compulsions” and inner party intrigue in UPA-II. The Government foundered in hopeless indecision and drift.
In UPA-I, Dr Manmohan Singh was an appointee of Sonia Gandhi, the Party leader and UPA Chairperson. The division of labour was clear. She would manage the party and coalition politics and he, the technocrat, would run the government. The arrangement worked well. The economy prospered and the Indo-US civil nuclear deal and foreign policy initiatives with Pakistan and China were proud feathers in the PM’s cap.
Come 2008. Baru, by then a trusted confidant, left for academic pastures. The PM’s stature certainly contributed to the UPA’s electoral victory. But Sonia Gandhi was ill and an ambitious coterie had begun to push for Rahul Gandhi as prime minister. Mrs Gandhi did not discourage this undercutting of the PM, while Manmohan Singh himself started the process of abdication by repeatedly announcing his readiness to step down in favour of Rahul Gandhi, a callow “youth” with no credentials other than bombast anda family name that he never failed to flaunt.
The States started flexing their “federal” muscles to stymie the Centre without being sternly called to order. As “scam” followed “scam”, some based on “presumptive loss” without taking account of huge collateral gain, individual ministers began to take their own line with some senior officials unwilling to stand their ground on principle. The Press broke every semblance of credibility with “breaking news” and The Daily Scream “impact” while the Opposition cried murder. Allegation became fact. Due process was scuttled. Parliament was stalled. And the Government remained supine, confused and divided.
Though he held the trump cards, as none would have dared oppose him if he had cracked the whip, as over the US civil nuclear deal, there being no alternative and none ready to face elections, he failed to act. The coup de grace came with Rahul Gandhi’s contemptuous stab in the back while the PM was representing India at the UN and US. He described a proposed and, indeed, utterly foolish, government ordinance (on not unseating legislators found guilty of criminality until disposal of the first appeal) as “complete nonsense” and “rubbish” whose proper place was in the waste dump. Yet he had been privy to this very decision, as had his mother, but lacked the integrity and gumption to voice his objections at the right time and place.
The Prime Minister had by then sadly decided to swallow his pride and soldier on so as not to let the side down when the name of the game, within and without UPA-II, was to get him and ridicule him at every turn. For the Prime Minister’s many friends and admirers, like this writer, this was a matter of genuine grief. For the country it was a disaster. Baru has only recorded history – not invented it. The timing of the book was the publisher’s call. The truth would not have been less or more true six weeks later. The Opposition has of course been only too willing to make the bogus claim that they now have “insider” confirmation!
A few years ago, for whatever reason I was gifted a handsome bronze plaque proclaiming “The Buck Stops Here”. Being of no relevance to me, I presented it to the Prime Minister in the hope that, placed on his desk, it would be an unambiguous assertion to all and sundry as to who was in charge. I do not know what happened to that plaque.
ManmohanSingh’s legacy will survive this traumatic denouement. As he himself has stated, history will be kinder to him than his present-day critics, who lack his personal integrity and vision. Typical of the man, he and his gracious wife, will move out of the official prime ministerial residence, No. 7 Race Course Road, to his permanent retirement abode in Delhi a day before the poll result is announced – a principled gesture that says so much in a smash-and-grab political culture.
The NDA will most probably come out on top in the poll; but it is not certain to this writer that it will gain a majority on its own. And if the gap is wider than the “low” opinion forecasts, who knows the NDA-Plus partners may decide they want a leader who will unite the country. Modi remains a divisive and ruthless figure despite his new rhetoric. Silly interlocutors ask why he does not apologise for 2002?Wrong question. Why should he when he denies any wrongdoing. The right question is why he consistently refused to express remorse at the terrible carnage under his watch. Read the press notes officially issued in 2002 and his broadcasts and speeches. There is not a trace of remorse: only the promise of terrible revenge. The elections will soon be over but not the 2002-related trials and due process.
Regrettably, as the election campaign has continued, communal polarisation has deepened all round. The latest barb was on Ambedkarjayanti when the BJP and Modi personally said the Congress had sought to favour Muslims and Christians at the cost of Dalits, witness the Sachar and Ranganath Mishra Reports. According to a BJP pamphlet distributed that day, “About 15 crore converted Christians and Muslims will become eligible for reservations along with 22 crore members of the Scheduled Castes”! (Indian Express, April 15).
This comes at a time when in Iran, the long-persecuted “Bahai’s of the world” have been gifted by Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, a prominent cleric, an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of Baha`u`llah, the Prophet-founder of the Baha`i Faith. Ayatollah Tehrani states on his website that this “symbolic action (is intended to) serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice.” This is a message of remorse and reconciliation.
Are we in India listening?