More people in Delhi are perhaps privately relishing Sanjaya Baru's The Accidental Prime Minister than are applauding his memoir of his time as media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That has mostly to do with the awful timing of its release for the PM and Congress, right in the middle of election season, which has prompted questions about his motivations. Critics argue that Baru would surely have been aware of the effects of releasing it amid such a fraught election, even if his book generously praises Dr Singh apart from being scathing about his failures.
The furore will pass and Baru's book will be recognised as a notable contribution to contemporary history. Personal accounts are by their very nature, partial, selective and contested but they do offer a glimpse of the corridors of power which readers are otherwise deprived of. Our politicians, with some exceptions, don't particularly care about writing their own accounts of public life while bureaucrats are either too steeped in a culture of secrecy or are constrained by loyalty to their peers. Many simply prefer focusing on post-retirement sinecures than contemplating disclosures in the public interest.
The one big utility of The Accidental Prime Minister is that it demonstrates forcefully to the Congress that the practice of having two power centres at 10 Janpath and South Block does not work. The failure of the set up had nothing to do with the disposition of individuals concerned. Sonia Gandhi implicitly trusted Manmohan Singh, he was the person most seen at her side when meeting foreign leaders prior to 2004. Singh, in turn, was avuncular and deferential. It was inevitable though that power would change equations. Mrs Gandhi was a more mature figure by 2004, more self-aware of political authority she exercised as Congress's principal vote-getter and chairperson of the UPA. She was also probably too scarred by the experience of PV Narasimha Rao wresting power from the family to leave policy matters entirely to South Block. As a result, the National Advisory Council was formed to pursue her concerns, Pulok Chatterjee, a bureaucrat believed to be close to 10 Janpath, was deputed to the PMO to oversee implementation of the common minimum programme and reportedly keep Mrs Gandhi in the loop. Loyalists like Ahmed Patel kept in constant touch to further party interests.
The optics of this arrangement was not lost on Congress heavyweights. As Baru puts it, Cabinet members started flouting Singh's authority as no one felt he owed his position to the PM. The late Arjun Singh showed scant respect, A K Antony was "difficult", often disagreeing with Singh on foreign, defence and economic policy and Pranab Mukherjee allegedly resented being upstaged by his one-time junior. Mukherjee once returned from a trip to Washington as Foreign Minister and didn't bother briefing the PM for three days about his meetings with George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice.
Singh found it difficult, as a result, to commandeer Cabinet meetings to his purposes. The Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs hardly met, its role was usurped by the weekly meeting of the Congress core-group which effectively became the "management board of party and government". To compound matters, Singh consolidated the use of the Groups of Ministers (GoMs) which were empowered bodies to take policy decisions that the Cabinet only needed to ratify subsequently. This, Baru reckons, was a "self-inflicted wound on prime ministerial authority".
Dr Singh also lacked a Brajesh Mishra or Rahm Emanuel-style czar with the political verve and connections to deliver the PM's bidding across party and government. J N Dixit could have been that figure briefly but his sudden death robbed Singh of such a resource. MK Narayanan, his successor as NSA, was not in the same league and allegedly beholden to Mrs Gandhi, while Principal Secretary TKA Nair did not command authority among bureaucratic peers.
Singh's manoeuvre was thus limited from the beginning. His natural reticence was a factor too preventing him from cracking the whip on ineffective, corrupt ministers and he couldn't become the forceful figure that Congress perhaps now wishes he had been. But Baru also argues that Singh was "a good Prime Minister" notwithstanding the limits imposed on him. He assumed ownership of foreign policy, strengthened links with the West, took significant risks on Pakistan and nearly agreed a framework for settling Kashmir, which will be an enduring reference point for some time to come. Singh was convinced that greater integration with the world economy would help India's growth - and therefore drove the Look East policy, which is paying huge strategic dividends now. Singh was, of course, doggedly persistent on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Baru argues that Singh did not get due recognition for several domestic policy initiatives including that of expanding the ambit of NREGA.
Through the retelling of several key episodes, Baru's fluent memoir offers insight into the workings of government, the politics of claiming credit, the mechanics of image building, motivations of political figures and their use of the media for personal ends. It is also not short of nuggets for keen Delhi watchers. MK Narayanan, a former chief of Intelligence Bureau, had the habit telling ministers, officials and journalists that he had "a file" on them. MK and JN Dixit "would often explode into angry arguments in the presence of the PM". And K Subrahmanyam, the venerable strategic thinker who Singh turned to for advice, felt that C. Raja Mohan could be a candidate for the NSA job if the PM was looking for someone outside government. Future historians will find the sections on nuclear negotiations and talks with Pakistan particularly valuable.
Baru's memoir has been challenged on the grounds that he was a marginal adviser who neither had access to confidential files nor attended Cabinet meetings. But there's little doubt, as amply evident by the level of detail in the book, that Baru closely shadowed the PM for four years. He was at various times his speechwriter, a sounding board, a trusted aide to handle sensitive conversations and occasionally a conduit to the intellectual world that Singh wanted to keep in touch with. Some will sniff that Baru inserts himself as a key player in critical moments. But it is not inconceivable that a person with direct access to the PM is often in a position to participate in and influence crucial conversations. In any case, no one has yet seriously contested the specifics of Baru's claims. He has set out his stall - it is for the others to offer their own narrative, including, one hopes, Dr Singh himself eventually.
(Sushil Aaron works at the Centre for Policy Research. These are his personal views. Twitter: @SushilAaron)