Review of The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh

A very servile Manmohan Singh

To be frank when I started reading The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh by Sanjaya Baru I was simply looking to reaffirm my belief that the Prime Minister must be a hopeless person who rightly deserves the derision he elicits from all quarters. If you have the same intention, prepared to be disappointed, because more than portraying him as a feelingless, soundless, immoral, expressionless and a robotic person (the writer does spend some time highlighting these attributes although not in very harsh words) Baru portrays him as a person who is one of the most deserving Prime Ministers India has ever had but like a mythological tragic hero, he is too embroiled in his own sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and in the process, not only totally destroys his reputation but also undermines the authority of the highest institution of the country in its most extreme sense.

Manmohan Singh’s critics, both in media and in opposition parties, I think, jumped the gun when they poked fun at him conveniently assuming that lots of juicy details were contained within the book. Even his daughters who blamed Baru for breaking the trust that their father had put in him hadn’t, I suppose, read the book when they made those statements.Once you have read the book, it seems as if Manmohan Singh himself had wanted this book to be written. The book in no way disparages him. Yes, it does show him a willing puppet of Sonia Gandhi in total exasperated cluelessness but in no way it depicts him as a person who deserves no sympathy.

Baru remained the Prime Minister’s media adviser from 2004 till 2008 and this is the period that is mostly covered in the book. While reading the book, I was thinking, how difficult it is to imagine Pankaj Pachauri, the current media adviser, in the same position, enjoying the same level of intimacy that Baru enjoyed it.

The Accidental Prime Minister

Having worked in Economic Times and Financial Express, Sanjaya Baru was already an admirer of Manmohan Singh and he can be easily grouped into the category of editors and journalists who have a friendly, lenient approach towards the Congress party, especially Manmohan Singh. When I say “lenient” approach I don’t mean they’re totally servile (some of them are, undoubtedly, especially from the Hindustan Times and Outlook), but when it comes to making a choice between the BJP (the right) and the Congress (the center of left) they would put their weight behind the Congress rather than the BJP (it might not be true, but this is how it seems by the general state of affairs in the media as well as intelligentsia). As Baru himself explains, the system of familiarity and bonhomie between the top rungs of the bureaucracy and politicians spans many decades and it is not very easy to unshackle one from the deep-rooted attitudes and opinions. Even Baru was known to people who were close to the Prime Minister’s office due to his father, relatives and friends.

Tavleen Singh in her book Durbar also talks about this close network that not only supports its members but also bars the entry of the outsiders. This network has a preconceived notion of what sort of people should run the government and any sort of divergence from that preconceived notion disturbs them, makes them uncomfortable, and consequently, consciously or unconsciously, they start working towards bringing the same old establishment back to power, the establishment they are comfortable with. How deeply this psychology is entrenched can be gauged from the following two quotes from the book:

A couple of years before Sonia Gandhi took charge of the Congress, the communist ideologue Mohit Sen wrote a persuasive column in the Times of India underlining the historic role Sonia would be called upon to play and urging her to do so. The first woman president of the Indian National Congress, he argued, was also a European woman, Annie Besant. The party, he stressed, should once again be led by another.

I assumed that Mohit, as an Indira loyalist, had a special regard for her heirs. But his opinion that Sonia should enter politics was also based on his conviction that without a Nehru-Gandhi family member at the top, the Congress party would splinter and wither away. This view was also encouraged by members of the Delhi durbar—a ‘power elite’, to use sociologist C.Wright Mill’s term, comprising civil servants, diplomats, editors, intellectuals and business leaders who had worked with or been close to the regimes of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv. Some of them inhabited the many trusts and institutions that the Nehru-Gandhi family controlled. They had all profited in one way or another, over the years, from their loyalty to the Congress’s ‘first family’.

So when Baru joined as a media adviser to the PM, you can easily say that he came with a positive view of not just Manmohan Singh but also of the new UPA-1 government that had just replaced the NDA.

Going by the state of the country and the sort of monumental apathy our politicians display towards its people, it was surprising to read about bureaucrats and some of the politicians actually brainstorming on the pressing issues on a regular basis, even weekly, sometimes. Baru in his book says that top bureaucrats, IAS/IFS officers and top rung government secretaries often meet over tea, lunch and dinner to talk about the various programs and schemes being launched and monitored by the government.

Baru assumed that his topmost priority would be to highlight all the work being done by the PM and keep the media abreast with what is happening in the Prime Minister’s office, but his job was made considerably tough by Manmohan Singh’s insistence that under no circumstances he should be promoted more than the Gandhi family.

According to Baru, somehow it had gotten into the PM’s mind that his entire existence depended upon being on the good side of Sonia Gandhi and it would be disastrous to antagonize her or act in a manner as if he were asserting his importance. For him, the party came first, then the prime ministership and then, the country. In fact his own partymen and women had so much disdain for his position that they wouldn’t even report to him and would straightaway go to Sonia Gandhi. Once Pranab Mukherjee visited an important country and when he came back, he reported to Sonia Gandhi, not bothering to even once visit the Prime Minister. Manmohan Singh felt sad, but he never protested and ultimately, the country was the loser.

Perhaps he had gotten this idea from the sort of treatment Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri were met with for ending up on the wrong side of the lady. Narsimha Rao, while he was the Prime Minister, had asserted his authority and rarely allowed Sonia Gandhi to have her way. She turned him into a total outcast as soon as she was able to do so and wouldn’t even allow his last rites to be performed in the capital, which was the norm with all the past prime ministers of the country. His dead body had to be flown back to his native place. After that, his name was totally removed from all official documents.

Narasimha Rao’s children wanted the former PM to be cremated in Delhi, like other Congress prime ministers. Impressive memorials had been built for Nehru, Indira and Rajiv at the places where they had been cremated along the river Yamuna, adjacent to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. Even former prime minister Charan Singh, who had not belonged to the Congress, and Sanjay Gandhi, who was only an MP, had been cremated and memorialized in the vicinity. However, Patel wanted me to encourage Narasimha Rao’s sons, Ranga and Prabhakar, and his daughter, Vani, to take their father’s body to Hyderabad for cremation. Clearly, it seemed to me, Sonia did not want a memorial for Rao anywhere in Delhi.

Interestingly, in 2007, the Congress party tried a replay of this stratagem with the family of former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, persuading them to take the body of the former PM to his farm at Bhondsi in Haryana. However, Chandra Shekhar’s son insisted that the family would go to Delhi’s Lodi Crematorium if the former PM was not given a proper state funeral in Delhi. The government fell in line and Chandra Shekhar was cremated on the banks of the Yamuna at a spot designated Ekta Sthal.

Sitaram Kesri, who was the president of the Congress party before Sonia Gandhi, was subjected to the same sort of ignominy. He was physically thrown out of the office to make way for Sonia Gandhi.

Another major misconception was that no matter what his colleagues do, he would remain un-tarred. That was perhaps one of his greatest fatal mistakes. It reeks of the typical Punjabi mentality of “saanu ki?” (why should I bother unless I’m directly involved?) You cannot remain in a mud pool and come out clean. As the Prime Minister of the country it’s your responsibility to see that your colleagues don’t take advantage of their position and indulge in corrupt practices. His entire fortress of uprightness and principles collapses in one blow under the light of the facts that he stood witness to the massive plunder of the country assuming that things are going to remain fine as long as he remains clean. What sort of PM did he think he was? What good does your integrity do when your entire team is corrupt? This is beyond a reasonable person’s comprehension. This is how he could explain the 2G scam, the Coalgate scam, the spectrum allocation spam, the Commonwealth Games scam and such. Coalition dharma in order to keep his party in power for him came before the country. Baru compares him to the mythical Bhishma. Bhishma was the right person on the wrong side. He even bore witness to Draupadi’s disrobing in the court just because his dharma didn’t allow him to speak up. In the same manner, Manmohan Singh kept quiet while his country was being disrobed and raped by his own men and women.

It was an open secret that had Sonia Gandhi had her way she would herself have become the PM or at least would have made sure that one of her family members would have gotten the seat, but the circumstances were such that she had to settle for Manmohan Singh, a totally pliant, non-politician, non-authoritative personality. It became clear to Baru very soon that everything good that happened had to be attributed to the Gandhi family and everything bad that happened was to be attributed to the PM. She enjoyed total authority with zero responsibility.

Manmohan Singh was so worried about giving every possible credit to the Gandhi family that once he chastised Baru for attributing the success of a particular event or a scheme to him because he was worried that Sonia Gandhi would be upset if the credit was not given to Rahul Gandhi.

The book also throws some light on how political machinations triumph over national interest. Various peace initiatives initiated between Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf were scuttled because the high command didn’t want the credit of such an important event to go to a non-family person. Ever since the times of Nehru and Indira Gandhi the various prime ministers had been trying to strike up a sustainable accord with Pakistan without success and there was this person who had been simply installed as a puppet and he was making headway and consequently, about to take the whole credit. How could this be allowed to happen?

Due to whatever perverse reasons Sonia Gandhi intends to keep everything under her control. To abdicate responsibility she formulated the NAC that imposes all sorts of socialistic welfare schemes upon the government, putting lots of financial burden on the exchequer and wreaking havoc with the economy. She has no qualms about destroying various institutions as long as the destruction solves her purpose and perpetuates the rule of the dynasty. Everywhere she plants her own ministers and her own babus, and nobody questions her absolute authority. In the second term of the UPA, the PM couldn’t even employee the media adviser of his choice.

Then there was this nuclear deal everybody was up against. In fact 50% of the book talks about the various political intrigues that took place during the various negotiations and talks. The survival of UPA-1 depended on the communists’ support. Whereas people like Sitaram Yechuri and Harkishan Singh Surjeet supported the PM, Prakash Karat who succeeded Surjeet had his own axe to grind. Due to infighting within the Communist Party, he created all sorts of hurdles and practically sabotaged the entire deal. The CPM and the CP(I)M withdrew support over the issue and fortunately for Manmohan Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav came to his rescue.

Even the Congress high command wasn’t very happy about the deal because it meant getting closer to the USA which would mean antagonizing the Muslim vote bank that was deemed to be highly against any sort of collaboration with America. So even if the deal was for the benefit of the country, it didn’t suit the Congress high command politically and hence all sort of pressure was put on Manmohan Singh to cancel it.

This was perhaps the only time when Manmohan Singh put his foot down and insisted on going ahead with the deal. The government almost fell.

When the UPA came back to power in 2009 it was solely due to Manmohan Singh, according to Baru. It was his policies, his better handling of the economy and the external affairs that won the coalition its second term. Contrary to the popular belief, the Congress party wasn’t expecting to come back to power. The strategy before the election was, if they want, the entire credit would go to the leadership and dynamism of Rahul Gandhi, and if the lost, all the blame would be put on the anti-poor and America-favoring Manmohan Singh.

Rahul Gandhi, every party loyalist claimed, was the architect of the 2009 result. In the very hour of victory, its authorship was denied to the man who made it happen.

The way I saw it, if the Congress had lost, the blame for the defeat would have been placed squarely on the PM’s shoulders. It would be said his obsession with the nuclear deal cost the party the support of the Left and the Muslims. His ‘neo-liberal’ economic policies would have been deemed to have alienated the poor. His attempt to befriend Musharraf would have been regarded as having alienated the Hindu vote. A hundred explanations would have been trotted out to pin the defeat on the PM. Now that the party was back in office, and that too with more numbers than anyone in the party had forecast, the credit would go to the party’s ‘first family’. To the scion and future leader. It was Rahul’s victory, not Manmohan’s.

Sonia Gandhi, feeling threatened, began to diminish his authority even further.

He said, ‘I am sorry about what happened. You see, you must understand one thing. I have come to terms with this. There cannot be two centres of power. That creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party.’

I saw no point in disagreeing with him or contesting his thesis. But, of course, I did disagree with it. The prime minister was answerable to the Parliament and the government was governed by the Constitution. The party president was only the leader of her party. The prime minister was the leader of the country as a whole and the head of government. One could go on and on, discussing these things threadbare. But this was neither the time, nor the place. Each one of us finds our own rationale for what we do and do not do. He had found his.

Baru enjoyed a personal bonding with Manmohan Singh and Manmohan Singh used to communicate that in minimum words.

The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making And Unmaking Of Manmohan Singh makes an engaging reading despite lots of policy related descriptions and bureaucratic jargon. It gives you a deep insight into the complex character that Manmohan Singh is. In his public appearances he might appear almost dead, but in his day-to-day dealings and with his dealings with other statesmen of the world, he was quite communicative, receptive and presentable. This book will change the way you think of Manmohan Singh, although you may end up disliking him more because he could have done so much better. Who cares how history will judge him? What matters is, how the present generation judges him. Read the book, it won’t be a waste of time. Baru is a good writer.

Rest in peace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, really

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Death often catches you unguarded – I’m not talking about the people who die because I think (unless the death happens due to murder or accident) they have an inkling beforehand – I’m talking about people who are left behind. There I was worrying about what article to write, where should I send another pitch and where I should do a follow-up, which single-page websites I should set up for Steve, how to spend some time with my daughter, and then suddenly, I saw this message on my Twitter timeline “R.I.P Garcia”.

Which Garcia? I thought. It can’t be THAT Garcia. It took me some time and a quick search on the Internet to find that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is dead.

While looking at his picture on my computer monitor my daughter came in my room, looked at the photo and asked, “Who is he?”

When I tried to tell her, I couldn’t. I realised I was choking. I rapidly swallowed the lump that was rising in my throat and blinked my eyes to hold back my tears and then explained to her that he was my favourite living writer and he just died so I’m feeling very sad. When I told her how old he was, she tenderly touched my shoulder and said, “That’s all right, old people die, even I will die when I grow old.”

It hit me how fast time flies. Many years ago I had taken a resolve that I would meet him in person someday, and then forgot about that resolve, and now, he is dead. With every passing day, with every passing week, with every passing month, life goes by and then one day you realise, there were so many things that you wanted to do, and you just got distracted by the world around you.

Love in the Time of Cholera was accidentally left behind by my cousin who was visiting us from Canada. I remember she was one day pointing at the book and telling me that if I read books, I must read that one but sadly, she said, she had to take it back.

English books those days were not easily available especially when I couldn’t physically scour through various bookshops and had to solely depend on my mother and other people to visit bookshops for me and then use their own discretion. So my exposure was the British classics of Charles Dickens and Emily Brontë types, or Russian books that you would get in the book fair at Pragati Maidan. Love in the Time of Cholera with explicit sex was a totally new experience for me, especially the protagonist Florentino Ariza having wild sex with his teenage niece at the ripe old age of 75 (if I’m not forgetting). But then, only Garcia could pull off a love affair that spanned decades while remaining, sort of unrequited.

“I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”

You can’t imagine how many nights I must had spent trying to think how Fermina Daza looked.

Whether one agrees with the inherent value system represented in the book (and in his other books), the extraordinary writing style made a deep impression on me and I desperately wanted to read more from him. I’m pretty sure that my best writing (literary, not professional) came under his influence. I don’t remember how I came across One Hundred Years of Solitude but this is a book that I have read thrice, although, initially I didn’t want to read it because, what sort of book would it be that starts with an execution?

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Those days – the time between the college and trying to set up my own business – I had no concept of magical realism. I realised that his characters existed in the realms of reality and unreality and there were many things happening in his books that you couldn’t pinpoint weather they were real worldly or supernatural. As a young boy he spent lots of time with his grandmother and she used to tell him all sorts of fantastical tales and many of her characters were a mix of real and unreal.

Later I found many writers, including Salman Rushdie adopted magical realism to create captivating narratives.

My wife often says that it’s very easy to create unreal characters and then weave stories around them and it is very difficult to weave stories on real-life characters. For some time I had started believing that because I had forgotten how Garcia wrote. I think when you write well, you just write well, it doesn’t matter if you are writing stories around surrealistic characters or some rickshaw puller dying of hunger.

That was the way he wrote. I have read a few Nobel prize winning writers and I firmly believe that in contemporary times Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the most deserving. He never wrote to receive awards and you can clearly see that in his writings. Even if he wrote one word, it genuinely came from him and not from some aspiration to prove something. That was his strength.

His death has given me a small jolt today. In the flurry of everyday activities you begin to believe that life is infinite. While growing old, somehow you forget that your idols are also getting old. People whom you would like to meet one day are also getting old and if you don’t hurry, they may die before you meet them.

You saw lots of turbulence Gabriel Garcia Marquez, physical, intellectual, emotional and worldly. Rest in peace. Thanks for enriching our lives with your beautiful words. Thanks for making solitude charming. You have left the world richer.

The fundamental difference between Wendy Doniger and Joe D’Cruz censorship

Cruz Doniger

A couple of months ago Penguin India decided to pulp all the copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus. The contents of the book were deemed highly contentious by some people and a person named Dina Nath Batra had challenged the book in the court and in order to avoid legal complications the publishing house decided to pulp all the copies of the book. Clearly the multinational publishing house couldn’t stand behind the book confidently.

Another publishing company Navayana who is known to publish Dalit works has decided not to publish the Sahitya Akademi awardee Joe D’Cruz’s English version of the Tamil novel “Aazhi Soozh Ulagu” (Ocean Ringed World) because of the writer’s open support for Narendra Modi.

The readers of this blog will note that while highly objecting to the contents of The Hindus I have never recommended the banning of the book or pulping it. My recommendation was to counter it with another book or with another paper. This is how works of art, works of intellect must be met with if you don’t agree. Or you can simply ignore it hoping that not many people read it.

Navayana and the person who did the English translation haven’t rejected the book for its content, in fact they say that the content is superb and well-researched. Their problem is the writer’s support for Narendra Modi. This is how the English translator V. Geetha justifies the publisher’s stand:

“I was terribly distressed when I read Joe D’Cruz’s statement of support for Modi. He is entitled to his political opinion, but I don’t want to be associated with anyone or anything linked to Modi. We can’t forget Gujarat 2002-no one must be allowed to, either. I still stand by his novel, which I think is a fantastic saga of fisher life, and I am sorry Joe has decided to trade his considerable gifts as a novelist for a politics that is fascist and dangerous. I have, therefore, decided to withdraw my translation.”

I think she’s making a fair statement (not the “fascist and dangerous” part because here she is simply propagating divisiveness). You don’t want to associate with a person you don’t agree with. This is a highly polarised political atmosphere and the stakes are quite high on different ends of the spectrum. Extreme reactions are bound to happen. But that’s a different issue.

People who were trying to put the plight of both the authors in the same box are missing a big point. Wendy’s problem was intellectual dishonesty, Joe’s problem is his political stand. You may not agree with me, but the sole purpose of Wendy’s book was to denigrate the Hindu religion in every possible way. Her personal biases and agendas had percolated her work.

In Joe’s case he is not spreading his propaganda through his work. He is simply telling the story of the fishermen who live on the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu. It is a story that in no way propagates a particular religious or political philosophy. Whatever might be the author’s political views he has not allowed his views to eclipse his intellectual articulation, which, sadly, Wendy allowed. By not publishing his book, the publisher is not harming Joe (there are plenty of publishers available these days and besides, you can always publish on your own), the publisher is harming the story and worse, the publisher is harming the seafaring community whose story can reach a wider audience with an English translation.

Perhaps they were planning to recruit an ideological author into their fold and when they realised that just because the author is writing about an issue they can relate to it doesn’t mean that politically they stand on the same line, they got jittery.

You will actually be able to consume books

Book Capsules

Recently I came across an article (I’ve lost the link) that talked about the near-future possibility of you being able to “swallow” information, such as books, theories, research papers, and even stories and novels, as pills and capsules, instead of having to go through them page by page.

It may seem quite far-fetched at this moment, but in terms of biology there is nothing extraordinary in this possibility. Brain, after all, stores information by arranging and rearranging brain cells and imprinting electro-magnetic impulses. There are already hellucinogenic drugs that can alter out perception of reality. What if the information can be sent through our blood streams instead of using sensory inputs? Artificial limbs can already tell whether the fingers are touching different temperature and different sensations. People can reach orgasm via cyber sex. This is not the issue.

I’m just wondering, do we read books for the experience, or get the information into our brains? Is knowledge just about knowing, or is it a collection of our physical and emotional expepriences that we go through while acquiring that knowledge?

The article said you will be able to learn a language by popping a capsule or you will be able to read War and Peace by simply taking a pill. This basically means that along with printed and digital versions, you may also get “capsule” versions of the books.

Of course people have different notions of what an experience is. More and more people are preferring digital books (Kindle, Nook, Play Books) despite the fact we all miss that feel of holding an actual book, feeling and smelling its pages. You can carry an entire library in your palm and I’m pretty sure within the foreseable future the concept of visiting libraries and scouring through books is going to be a thing of the past and in fact, we may no longer have the book shelves in our homes and offices. This is natural, evolutionary process, whether we like it or not.

People read books for two reasons: to entertain themselves, and to educate or inform themselves. You can’t entertain yourself by suddenly coming to know of the contents of an entertaining book. Suddenly knowing Mcbeth isn’t the same as reading its lines individually, halting for thinking, engaging in mental debate and feeling the anguish of the characters. The Mcbeth capsule may simply reveal the story to you, it even may make it easier to recall certain pessages and dialogs, but it doesn’t make you a part of the story, which is why we normally read stories. We develop an empathy, or an aversion towards characters and circumstances when we need a novel or a play, that won’t be there is we simply swallow it.

Do the writers you read influence how you write?

I once read somewhere – and I don’t know whether it’s true or not – that the renowned writer Vikram Seth never reads lest he gets influenced by the other writers’ writing style. On the other hand, in his autobiographical book Salman Rushdie says that he has always been a voracious reader.

To an extent I do agree that you tend to write like writers you like. There was a time I was really influenced by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens and Dostoevsky. Back in those days there wasn’t much choice available. There was no Amazon.com, no Flipkart.com, and to be frank I didn’t even have much money to buy books. So most of the books I read were either given to me as gifts, or lent to me by friends and relatives or I got them issued from some library, mostly the British Council. So it was mostly the classics, and that’s how I wrote in my initial days. Obviously the writing was constrained, full of long, antiquated words and I spent more time trying to imitate my favourite writers than actually telling stories.

Letting yourself be influenced by your favourite writers isn’t as bad as it may seem when much stress is put on being unique. If writing like a particular writer gets your literary juices flowing, then why not? Actors acquire the demeanour of their favourite actors (have you ever noticed the similarity between Amitabh Bachchan, Dilip Kumar and Al Pacino? Even Gregory Peck and Dev Anand?). Singers imitate other singers. Even painters imitate the painters who influence them. Remember that initially it’s not important whether you’re copying somebody’s style or you’re creating your own style, what matters is how much you write. Many writers don’t succeed because they don’t write much. And eventually, as you keep on writing, you begin to find your own voice.