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Manmohan had become a one-issue prime minister

The Indo-US nuclear deal is the event that transformed the PM, fooling him into believing he was invincible. Without the changes that followed the deal, UPA 2 might have gone very differently, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Apr 15, 2014 13:05 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Anyone who has been following the Congress’ campaign for the ongoing general election will have noticed that among the many achievements that the Congress loudly trumpets, one is missing: The Indo-US nuclear deal. And yet, five years ago, when the party went to the polls the Prime Minister missed no opportunity to assure India that the deal would usher in a new era of progress and prosperity: Billions of dollars in fresh investments, round-the-clock electricity and a special relationship with Washington.

One reason why the Congress is so reticent about the deal is that little of what was promised has been delivered. The investments never came, power generation is still a problem, and ties with the US are actually in worse shape now than they were five years ago.

But the nuclear deal came to define Manmohan Singh. It remains the only issue he ever threatened to resign over (not corruption, not the humiliations heaped on him by his own party, or his collapsing reputation); it is the one factor that forever changed the dynamic between Sonia Gandhi and him, leading to a breakdown of the close relationship they had enjoyed during UPA 1; and it is the event that most completely transformed Manmohan Singh himself, fooling him into believing he was invincible. Without the changes that followed the deal, UPA 2 might have gone very differently.

The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, the new memoir by Sanjaya Baru, Manmohan Singh’s media advisor during UPA 1, offers us a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes.

Baru makes out a compelling case for the deal itself and indeed, it is hard for anyone not blinded by hatred for America to deny that the deal was good for India.

But how good? That was always the key question. The Left, on which the UPA depended for its parliamentary majority, had said that it would withdraw support if the deal went ahead.

Many in the Congress believed that though the deal had merit, it was not worth sacrificing the government for it. As Baru notes, this was the view that Sonia Gandhi finally went public with while speaking at the HT Summit on October 12, 2007.

Baru writes, “She said the survival of the government took precedence over the nuclear deal and while the Congress would continue to try and win over the Left it would do nothing to force the issue and risk a break with the Left.”

What we did not know then was that the prime minister was watching the HT Summit live on TV at 7 RCR. When he heard Sonia Gandhi, he felt grievously betrayed. According to Baru, he told two people: “She has let me down.”

Outwardly however, he seemed to agree with her. At his own session, shortly after Sonia’s, he rejected my characterisation that his obsession with the nuclear deal had made him a one-issue prime minister. “We are not a one-issue government,” he said, adding, “if the deal does not come through, that is not the end of life.” He also said, “One has to live with certain disappointments.”

And that should have been that. Except that Manmohan Singh had really become a one-issue prime minister. He seethed silently and then, Baru tells us, on June 17 of the following year, told Sonia that he would resign unless the deal went through. Sonia rushed to RCR the next morning to pacify him.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia was drafted to try and mollify the prime minister. But Singh’s mind was made up. Either the deal went through or he went.

It is not clear how Manmohan Singh thought events would play out or even, how he believed the Congress could possibly get the deal through. The Left would certainly withdraw support.

So, how could the government survive? Baru says that Singh relied on the support of Amar Singh, “who demonstrated great regard and affection for the PM”. But even if the Samajwadi Party reversed its position on the deal and backed the government, the UPA was still short of a majority.

The only way it could have survived was by buying MPs. And that, as we know, is what it did.

What made this deal so important to Manmohan Singh that he was prepared to threaten and antagonise Sonia, cuddle up to Amar Singh and let his party buy him a majority? Till this point, he had been both amenable to compromise and eager to steer clear of sleaze and corruption.

So why abandon the habits of a lifetime? Baru has no answers. But we know what happened next. The UPA survived and went on to win the 2009 election. After that, Singh was unstoppable. As Baru notes perceptively, he “exuded confidence” but “he made the cardinal mistake of imagining that the victory was his”.

The new confidence made Singh smug and complacent. Without the Left, he could have finally pushed ahead with a liberalisation agenda and yet, he showed no real enthusiasm for reform.

Instead, he began to behave arrogantly with colleagues and well-wishers. When he pushed further than the party wanted him to (at Sharm el-Sheikh, for instance), he no longer had Sonia in his corner. Says Baru: “UPA 2 was a tale of missed opportunities, of weak and unfocused leadership and a confused foreign policy.”

Baru ends his memoir by saying, “I feel tragically cheated that he has allowed himself to become an object of ridicule in his second term in office, in the process devaluing the office of the prime minister.” Fair enough. But let’s not forget that it was Baru who texted journos when the government survived after the nuclear deal: “Singh is King!”

Really? Actually that was the beginning of the end. Singh was King only for a day. After that, he was nothing.