Manmohan Singh had all the qualifications to be a great PM, if only he had acquired a political base: Sanjaya Baru


“History will be kinder to me than thecontemporary media,” Manmohan Singh told reporters at a press conference earlier this year. Sanjaya Baru’s book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh’ isn’t a revisionist exercise that will change public opinion about the PM who abdicated. In fact, it only reinforces the image of a ‘puppet PM’. But it does paint a portrait of an earnest, hard-working PM who let his loyalty — “misplaced and unrewarded” — to the Gandhi family get the better of his judgment. Baru, who was media adviser to the PM between 2004 and 2008, compares Singh to Bheeshma who watched with impotent rage as Draupadi was disrobed and didn’t put his foot down on the Kaurava succession. Excerpts from an interview...

You’ve confirmed what the media has been saying all along—that Manmohan is a puppet PM. When did his defanging, as you call it, happen? 

The book discusses this in some detail. I used the word ‘defanging’ to refer to what happened between May 21, 2009 and July 2009.

What according to you were the two biggest mistakes Manmohan Singh made? 

First, he should have contested the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and returned to office with his own mandate. Second, he should have quit when it became clear that the Congress’s priority was to bring Rahul in rather than defend the PM.

You’ve said that his Achilles’ heel was the equation with Sonia. But could he have done things differently? If he had been more his own man, wouldn’t he have met the same fate as P V Narasimha Rao? 

Maybe, but he would preserved the dignity of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Which are the areas you think he should have been more assertive?

In selecting his own cabinet and team.

The perception is that all the UPA’s progressive social policies came out of the NAC. As his media adviser did you try and change that? 

This question has been addressed in the book. I believe it was the arrangement that Sonia would get all the credit for the government’s “progressive social policies”.

Who was the one person who did the most to undermine the PM? 

That is hard to say, but I guess in the final analysis the PM undermined himself.

And who was his biggest ally? 

Sonia Gandhi. Without her support he would not have been able to do much of what he did.

Isn’t it ironic that an economist PM presided over rash spending, inflation and the economic slowdown. When did he lose control over fiscal policy? 

I think the government lost control over fiscal policy in UPA-2. But it is possible to suggest that the momentum of the populism of UPA-1 did the damage when the economy slowed down, but government spending could not.

When it comes to dealing with corruption, you describe Dr Singh’s approach as a combination of active morality for himself and passive morality with respect to others. How badly did that moral ambivalence damage his reputation? 

That is there for all to see. I do not have to elaborate.

The media has highlighted many of his weaknesses but what according to you were his strengths. 

I have discussed in great detail Dr Singh’s many strengths. His qualities of heart and mind. His administrative experience and his understanding of the world. In fact, the book has highlighted his many strengths and discussed them in great detail. He was the first PM after Nehru to get re-elected to a second term after a Nehru. The 2009 victory was his.

The PMO has said your commentary smacks of fiction and coloured views. How do you react to this? 

I am amused by that reaction. I do not wish to say more. Readers can read the book and judge for themselves.

Given the election season, many believe that the timing of the book could be damaging for the Congress. Do you agree? 

That is for the readers to decide. That was not my intention in writing the book. I wanted the book published after Dr Singh left office, but my publishers felt no one would be interested in a book on Manmohan Singh after June. The decision to publish now was theirs and I finally relented.

What is the one piece of advice you gave Manmohan Singh that you wish he had heeded? 

To return to power through the Lok Sabha in 2009.

He’s been likened to two figures in the Mahabharata. Yashwant Sinha called him Shikhandi and later he was dubbed Dhritarashtra. Which assessment do you agree with? 

He was more like Bheeshma. Bheeshma faced his most embarrassing moment when Draupadi asked him why he could not protect her when she was being disrobed. As I say in the book, Dr Singh’s silences in UPA-2, for which the media mocked him, made me wonder whether he too was consumed by impotent rage like Bheeshma.

You describe him as not just a good man but also a good PM. Despite the many weaknesses you’ve highlighted, isn’t that a surprising conclusion? 

First, my book highlights more strengths than weaknesses. The media has naturally focused on the weaknesses, partly because of the PMO’s kneejerk reaction. Second, he was better than the available competition. He had all the qualifications to be a Great PM, if he had only acquired a political base. He was a ‘good PM’ in terms of the leadership he provided to government, but the Prime Minister’s Office is a political office. Not an administrative office.


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