You can’t have failed to notice how Sanjaya Baru’s biography of Dr Manmohan Singh, The Accidental Prime Minister, has created a storm. However, the critical question that hasn’t been addressed is: Has the book uncovered the dark hidden secrets of the Manmohan Singh prime ministership or simply acknowledged a reality that was staring us in the face?
Of Dr Singh’s prime ministership Baru concludes: “Many… believe that in not asserting the authority inherent in his office he… devalued it… his willingness to be pushed around by his party and coalition partners and… to have his decisions publicly challenged by Rahul Gandhi, irretrievably damaged his image.”
This was an inevitable consequence of Dr Singh’s belief “There cannot be two centres of power … I have to accept that the Party President is the centre of power”. He, therefore, deliberately subordinated himself to Sonia Gandhi and made the prime minister junior to the Congress president.
This is, of course, a distortion of our Constitution. Article 74 makes the Prime Minister the supreme authority in the country. As such, he is accountable to Parliament. By accepting Sonia Gandhi as more powerful, Dr Singh undermined the Constitution, the prime ministership as well as the concept of accountability.
Yet the undeniable truth is that the mandate of 2004 — you may differ about 2009 — was for Sonia Gandhi as prime minister. She gifted the post to Dr Singh. This clearly demonstrated she had the power to do so. And that power remained with her. No wonder he accepted “The Party President is the centre of power”. It was reality.
This is why Pulok Chatterji would “seek her instructions on important files to be cleared by the PM”. This is why she could offer the finance ministership or choose a national security advisor and principal secretary without consulting the PM. He was, after all, her appointee.
The surprising thing is that it was done quietly, even unobtrusively, and didn’t attract attention. Each time Sonia exercised her power she, no doubt, undermined the office of Prime Minister — and that’s true of Rahul Gandhi in later years — but it was done with discretion.
This was one reason their diarchy survived and often succeeded. The other is that Dr Manmohan Singh didn’t complain. He swallowed whatever slights were meted out to him. But then, what else could he have done?
You could come to the same conclusion about Dr Singh’s response to the corruption scandals that overwhelmed his government. Of this Baru writes: “Rather than call him blind, I would say that he sometimes chose to close his eyes … he averted his eyes from corruption.” His conclusion: “He was himself incorruptible, and also ensured that that no one in his immediate family ever did anything wrong, but he didn’t feel answerable for the misdemeanours of his colleagues and subordinates.” It follows Dr Singh could have acted to either prevent corruption or tackle it but consciously chose not to.
On the other hand what could he have done? He didn’t have the power to remove ministers. That lay with their respective party chiefs. If they stood by their errant colleagues the prime minister could only accept or endanger the government. Averting his eyes was his answer. Once again, he was accepting reality.
The truth lies tucked in the phrase Dr Singh once used to describe himself: “I’m an accidental Prime Minister.” That accident gave him the post but not the power that goes with it.
The views expressed by the author are personal