Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2014 > A Puppet on a String

Mainstream, VOL. 52, No. 21, May 17, 2014

A Puppet on a String

Monday 19 May 2014, by D. Bandyopadhyay

book review

The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh by Sanjaya Baru; first published in Viking by Penguin Books India, New Delhi; 2014; pages: 301; price: Rs 599.

Being ruled for centuries by despotic petty rajas and nawabs whose private lives were often not only bizarre but even grotesque (shrouded in secrecy), common Indians had an insatiable curiosity about their life and living style. This propensity about our elected leaders continues even after independence.

Power has its own alchemy which often transforms a common and affable individual into an arrogant and proud person. It is difficult even for an amiable person to keep it up when in power. This is a common occupational hazard of holding power. Some can overcome it with conscious effort, many however succumb to it. Dr Manmohan Singh’s gentle and benign face and equally courteous and gracious behaviour not only charms his visitors but totally disarms his detractors. That is one of the behaviourial assets which he used with aplomb. Thus his political adversaries, while attacking him or his government, often preface their sizzling speeches with kind references to him. He fits in with the definition of a Sanskrit word “ajatashatru”—a person without any enemy. Though the Trinamul Congress (TMC), which was a partner of the UPA, came out of the alliance giving up several ministerial berths for his government’s “anti-people” policies, no TMC leader, whether inside Parliament or outside, would make any personal attack on him. Yes, on policies we differ and differ often with fury, but there would not be anything personal against him.

I must confess that I know him for a long time. I was inducted as the Adviser, Rural Development, Planning Commission, when he was the Member Secretary of that body. Since then I have been meeting him in various capacities. And currently we are both Members of the Rajya Sabha, where I find him disarming his virulent critics with his friendly and gracious smile. I had to preface this piece with this personal reference only to underline the fact that our critique of his government and its policies has no element of personal animosity. Personally I hold him in high esteem even though politically we parted company.

Without black, there is no white. The combi-nation of different shades of black and white makes a good picture. It is said that a black spot in a fair and handsome face enhances its beauty. Let me start with Dr Singh’s political “beauty spot”. Dr Singh had never been an ordinary resident of Assam. At a time when Members of the Rajya Sabha could be elected from amongst the “ordinarily residents” of the State, Dr Singh got himself elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam on the strength of the rent receipt of a residential building in Guwahati. Inhabitants of Guwahati knew and the rest of the Indian population were aware that this “procured” document, which was itself genuine, did not prove the “genuineness” of his claim as ordinarily a resident of Assam.

I won’t buy the argument that it was an issue of political exigency. Morality is entirely personal. Reasons of political necessity cannot justify an act of political immorality. It was his insatiable desire to be in power and to move up and up and not to slide down even a couple of notches which made him do this act of political immorality. A seasoned public man should be able to take the rough with the smooth with equal ease. He displayed his basic bureaucratic mindset and he remained basically a bureaucrat even as the Prime Minister of the country.

Whether that characteristic of his was good or bad would be judged by history. We are too proximate to the event to judge its merits impartially. But this political black spot was slurred over by the author. As a writer of a biography he failed to display his neutrality. As a result much of what he writes in the PM’s praise would have to be taken with some discount.

Almost all Secretaries to the PM, who had been all well-known civil servants, did not write much about the inner working of the PMO. In fact often the PMO supersedes the Cabinet. The Cabinet endorses what the PMO dishes out as “draft” policy or ‘draft’ of any action programme. The word “draft” emanating from the PMO is just a matter of semantics that “draft” really means final. But we Indians, being fond of formats and formality, continue to use “draft” knowing it to be the real.

The Indian bureaucracy still believes in the shroud of secrecy which was the hallmark of the colonial rule. When they were afraid of the “swadeshiwalas” who would use every scrap of government information for political agitation against the imperial power. In any bureaucracy, traditions die hard. So all the former Secretaries to the PM, who were privies to so many momentous events and secret issues, did not reveal anything excepting some titbits in few personal memoirs. The author, who is basically a reputed journalist, did not have any such civil service inhibition and, hence, he could write and express himself freely. We require such persons to know the inner working of the government. That way this book enriches our knowledge about the Indian governance which is highly welcome. It also makes a valuable contribution to the theory and practice of public administration in India.

However, as far as the author’s endeavour to bring out this book is concerned, one point needs to be underlined. There is a concept of privileged talk which cannot be made public even by the participants. For example, intimate talks between husband and wife fall under this category. The author, having been a media adviser to the PM, was privy to many such intimate, private and secret conversations. It is highly improper to make the whole or a part thereof public and particularly when there is a commercial interest involved. Any publication revealing such private and often secret talks would have a wide market, more so at election time. It may have some influence on the behaviour of voters who would have a chance to read the book before casting their votes. It grossly violates the ethical norms guiding such situations. The author, I am afraid, is responsible for violating these norms—something not expected of a writer of his standing.

I have some reservation about the title of the book “The Accidental Prime Minister”. The Congress High Command selected Dr Manmohan Singh after a lot of consideration. The “gaddi” of India has to be kept warm for a “pretender” to the throne belonging to a family. So the “interim” PM has to have no wide political base. He has to depend entirely on the goodwill of the family for his survival as the PM. He should be at the beck and call of the family. The real political power in the current Congress regime rests with the head of that family. Though Dr Manmohan Singh loudly asserted as early as in September 2009 at a press conference that “there is no foundation to the insinuation that there are two power centres. I am the Prime Minister” (p. 105), the fact remains that in popular mind Dr Singh is the holder of the office of the PM whose power rests with the party President. Dr Singh’s refusal to seek election to the Lok Sabha prevented him from being a people’s PM. He held the august post as a Member of the Rajya Sabha, a body which does not have any financial power. Budgets and financial Bills are placed in and passed by the Lok Sabha. These issues come to the Rajya Sabha as a matter of courtesy. After some debate, mostly academic in nature, these are returned to the Lok Sabha. Thus as an MP, the PM has no say on financial matters—this is contrary to the general practice in all parlia-mentary democracies.

Thus, notwithstanding, his loud proclamation of only one centre of power, there is no denying that in fact in India in Manmohan Singh’s regime there are two centres of power, one formal and other informal which has all the clout. The author clarifies the point brilliantly when he writes: “I had observed, as a journalist, how both Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee asserted their authority as PM. One began as the head of a minority government and the other as the head of a coalition. Both had factions and coalition partners to contend with. Both knew the limits of their power. Yet both managed to project themselves as Prime Ministers in their own right. They zealously guarded their turf.“ (p. 106)

In their case no media adviser was needed to build up their image as the Prime Minister. But in Dr Manmohan Singh’s case, the problem was how to project him as the Prime Minister “without bringing him into the party’s line of fire”. That was the serious challenge faced by Manmohan Singh’s media adviser. (p. 106) The most damaging aspect of Dr Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership is that in the popular mind the power rests either with a mother or her son or both. The formal Prime Minister is really a puppet on a string.

Dr Singh was lucky enough to be the Prime Minister for two full terms. This is quite a political achievement. But his tragedy is, as everyone else knows, that he has been a “shadow Prime Minister”—a term used in the United Kingdom for the Leader of the Opposition. The real power is being exercised from a bungalow away from both the Parliament House and South and North Blocks.

The author goes ga ga over Dr Singh’s nuclear agreement with the USA. This is a step forward no doubt. But one should not forget that there was a pressure from the other side also. The nuclear power industry in the USA has been languishing. They required a shot in the arm in the form of new orders. Because of environmental pressure many countries have discontinued the setting up of new nuclear power plants. There is a strong debate regarding the suitability of nuclear power plants in various fora. Against this background the USA welcomed Dr Singh’s proposal and signed an agreement to supply equipment for setting up nuclear power plants. It is true the embargo had to be withdrawn. That would have much wider beneficial effect. But it was not a magnanimous concession. The US business interests are deeply involved. Anyway if someone wants to appropriate the credit, let him do so as long it is not challenged.

One must admit that the Congress President, Ms Sonia Gandhi, initiated a number of progressive measures that had been languishing in the thought process of the ruling party at the Centre for a long time. It is understood that against the will of some Ministers of the Union Cabinet, she insisted on making laws relating to the national rural employment guarantee scheme, right to information, right to education, right to food security which, if properly imple-mented, will take Indian democracy to new heights. One should not underrate or pooh-pooh such progressive measures which can go a long way towards alleviating the sufferings of the poor. Unfortunately, the author bypassed these issues by accident or design. This has reduced the value of the book.

Nevertheless, a running commentary on an existing Prime Minister is a fairly difficult task. That the author has undertaken it is in itself noteworthy. 

The reviewer is one of the foremost administrators of the country (now retired). He was Secretary, Revenue and Secretary, Rural Development, Government of India. During his tenure as an administrator in West Bengal, he was the architect of ‘Operation Barga’, the most significant achievement of the Left Front Government’s 34-year rule in the State (1977-2011). He is currently a Member of the Rajya Sabha from West Bengal representing the Trinamul Congress.