by Praful Bidwai

The Accidental Prime Minister, the book by Sanjaya Baru, media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2004-08, has become a sensational best-seller primarily because its release was timed to coincide with the election campaign. Unsurprisingly, the BJP seized upon it to repeat its pet charge about Singh being India’s “weakest-ever” PM, and otherwise malign the Congress.

Baru couldn’t have been unaware that this would happen. His critics could well accuse him of currying favour with the BJP, especially after he recently described both Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe, the extreme-Right Japanese imperial-militarist PM, neutrally as “Asian nationalists”, which they aren’t. Just before Singh appointed him to his sensitive position, Baru had similarly heaped praise upon AB Vajpayee as India’s greatest Nehruvian after Nehru—a horrendous misjudgment, if not worse, given Vajpayee’s unreconstructed Hindutva worldview. Substantially, the book contains very little that’s not known about Singh’s quintessentially subordinate relationship with Sonia Gandhi, his tolerance (despite high personal probity) of blatant corruption in the name of “coalition dharma”, his cabinet colleagues’ defiance of him, and his hostility towards the Left (then necessary for UPA-1’s survival) and the National Advisory Council, which proposed modest measures to compensate for the iniquities of official economic policies.

The book collates a lot of gossip, especially about journalists, bureaucrats (e.g. Pulok Chatterjee) and ministers whom Baru didn’t admire, and offers some not-so-original information on UPA’s internal power balances. It also rationalises some questionable media manoeuvres that Singh indulged in, presumably on Baru’s advice.

But it definitely doesn’t establish the charge that Sonia Gandhi read/interfered with official files, or otherwise messed with government procedures. Singh deferred and reported to her as Congress-UPA president—voluntarily, or because he had no political base. But it’s unrealistic to expect Singh to have done otherwise, when he didn’t even gather the courage to get elected to the Lok Sabha. Baru’s resentment towards Singh seems rooted in two things: he was refused the adviser’s job in 2009 after returning from Singapore; and Singh didn’t stand up early and strongly enough to the Left and Gandhi on the US-India nuclear deal, which was his crowning achievement, and Baru’s notion of ideal mutual strategic reconciliation, which “normalised”/“rationalised” India’s nuclear arsenal. The first issue, involving Baru’s reasons for leaving the job prematurely, need not concern us here.

The second is based on the assumption that nuclear weapons are essential to national security—which India condemned for half-a-century as based on the “morally repugnant” doctrine of nuclear deterrence, only to embrace it shamelessly in 1998. Sonia was sceptical about the Pokharan-II tests and Singh eloquently criticised them in the Rajya Sabha as opposition leader. As if in recompense for accepting India’s nuclear weapons as a reality, UPA-1 solemnly promised in 2004 to work for a “nuclear weapons-free world” by updating Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 plan.

The US-India nuclear deal drove a nail into its coffin. The last thing you do after joining an exclusive club whose membership you craved for is to demand its dissolution! Baru is cynical enough to ignore this. Worse, he fails to acknowledge that Singh soon prevailed over Sonia and saved his government in 2008 by the dirtiest possible means.

Singh’s victory paved the way for qualitatively different government-party relations in 2009, with no Left pressure and a much-weakened NAC, whose recommendations Singh brazenly undermined while pursuing rapaciously pro-corporate neoliberal policies. This is a major reason for UPA-2’s loss of legitimacy and the chimerical hope that Modi may deliver something more—if not to the public, then to some advisers.

Bidwai is a writer, columnist, and a professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi.