Why would anyone give up a job so close to the centre of power and opt for the quieter confines of academia? Well, this is exactly what Sanjaya Baru, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s former media adviser, did when he opted for Singapore, where he has taken up a teaching assignment. He doesn’t see this move as a surprise, given his background. “This is not the first time in my life that I have got off a train to sit on the platform,” he says.
“I left the Times of India in 1997 to spend a couple of years at a research institute in Delhi. That came after eight exciting years in the media. For an economic journalist like me, the period 1990-97 was most exciting. Those were the years of crisis and reform and so much else. I took time off between 1998 and 2000 to read and write. A book came out of that period.” Baru returned to the media in 2000 and then went into government in 2004. He believes that being in the media or in the Prime Minister’s Office is like being on a fast train. “You get from one station to another pretty fast. Things are moving all the time. There are a lot of people who come and go in and out of your professional life. There is really very little time for reflection. Getting off a train and sitting on the platform, just watching all the other commuters and all those other people moving around changes your perspective. It allows you time to reflect.”
“This is my second interregnum,” he points out, “A period of reflection and rejuvenation.” But the train journey has had its interesting moments. Working with a scholar-administrator-politician like Manmohan Singh was “an educational experience”. Singh often said that working in government is a means of securing personal education at public expense. “Working with him was doubly so,” says Baru. The four years in the PMO had their “ups and downs and moments of great excitement, and great frustration”. But when we look back objectively at this period, he believes that we will come to recognise “the great transformation of mindsets” that Singh helped bring about in the country, in the government and in his own party. His stint at the PMO also made Baru more patient and less talkative. He would not have had the courage to make this change had it not been for the support of his family, wife Rama, a reputed academic, and daughter Tanvika, who has relocated to study in Singapore.
So what were the high points of Baru’s stint? “The first high point came within three months of my joining the PMO. This was the first national press Conference of the Prime Minister, at Vigyan Bhavan. It was the first time an Indian Prime Minister was addressing such a big event, that too with live telecast. We had over 500 journalists from India and abroad in that large hall. Dr Singh sat all alone on the huge Vigyan Bhavan dais, with no aides. He answered 50 questions over 90 minutes. Such a thing had not happened for a long, long time. I must add that when I first mooted the idea of the PM addressing such a press conference, several senior advisors of the PM cautioned me against such ‘adventurism’,” says Baru. Some felt he was not yet ready to face the media. “I was adamant and succeeded in convincing the PM. We drafted 75 ‘likely’ questions that he could be asked and he was briefed on each issue. I kept track of all the questions asked. Forty-nine out of the 50 were on our list of likely questions. Only one googly was bowled when a journalist — from Hindustan Times — asked the PM what he thought of his ‘spin doctor’.”
A second ‘high point’ was the visit of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to New Delhi in 2005. “Once again there was a lot of apprehension in the PMO and the ministry of external affairs about how the media would report the visit and its outcome, because of the famous Agra fiasco during the NDA’s tenure. I think the Musharraf visit to Delhi went off without a glitch.”
Given the high-pressure job that he had, Baru says that his present job as a professor is a welcome contrast. “But you never quite get journalism out of your blood,” he says. And he missed it most each morning when he saw the papers that he had to read in his role as media adviser. “I wished so often that I could have written some of those stories and editorials.”
He misses the casual chats he used to have with Singh. “I used to enjoy what I would call my gup-shup sessions with him, where we would chat about various things. Normally, the PM is not given to small talk and chit-chat. But when he got into the mood, it used to be fun just having a good gossip session with him, watching him laugh. Sometimes when he was particularly stressed his personal secretary would call me and say, “Why don’t you drop in for some gup-shup, the boss is free.” I used to say that I felt like a court jester who would be called in to amuse the king whenever the king was in a foul mood. I enjoyed that. I wonder if he misses that. I certainly do.”