Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Accidental PM and An Accidental Biographer

Manmohan Singh had greatness thrust upon him. The Indian voter had delivered a stunning verdict in 2004 that denied a mandate to the then ruling party, BJP, which, riding on a wave of economic resurgence, had blanketed the country with ads touting 'shining India'. More than their loss what drove the BJP crazy was the notion that Italy born Sonia Gandhi could lay a claim to the mandate and eventually unfurl the tricolor flag from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Even many voters who voted for Congress did not really imagine that that could be a result of their vote. An unfair groundswell of opposition rose to deny Sonia, who had led her party to victory almost singlehandedly, the office that she was constitutionally entitled to. In a stroke of surprise Sonia Gandhi, while refusing the office, ignored eager aspirants in her kitchen cabinet and called on Manmohan to lead the country despite the fact that he had not even contested the election. Manmohan became, as he himself confessed in many occasions to anyone who cared to listen, the accidental Prime Minister.

As a grieving widow of a gruesomely murdered man Sonia turned down the offer of Congress leadership. Seeing the party disintegrate she was later drafted to become the leader and save the party. It is chauvinism to keep referring to her as an 'Italian' as her opponents do. She has paid a very high price for marrying a man with the the surname 'Gandhi'. She is as much Indian as any Indian. The conflicts between the Prime Minister and the leadership of the party dates back to the Nehru-Tandon days. Not even Nehru, a charismatic leader with a reservoir of political capital, could avoid the antagonism with various factions of the party that had chosen him as their leader in legislature. Vajpayee -Advani rivalry and the internecine bickering that Vajpayee had with the hardliners of RSS and VHP is not a secret.

Sonia did occupy a certain grey area after the death of Rajiv during the days of the Narasimha Rao administration. Though she had no constitutional position visiting heads of state would pay her visit. During her hand picked Manmohan's administration she posed further ticklish problems because she was now an MP but came to be looked at as not just an MP. Something as simple as breaking protocol for her seating during a Republic Day parade became issues.

Sanjaya Baru was Manmohan's 'media adviser' and has released this book timed to cash in on the election season. He told a New York Times interviewer that he had 'promised a lot of people' that the book will be released only post-election but was compelled by the publisher to advance the publication for obvious reasons. The book does not contain any new revelations or bombshells since Baru takes cover behind the official secrets act. Written by a former aide the book suffers from a common malaise of any book by former officials in any regime across the world. Such books, unlike those written by a journalist, cannot rely on unnamed sources or even allude to them. Much of the book, therefore, is just a rehash of what is very commonly and plainly known to all those who have read newspapers.

Manmohan lacked political legitimacy because he was plucked out of anonymity by Sonia and it was compounded by the fact that he was not directly elected to the Lok Sabha and instead chose to be nominated for a Rajya Sabha seat ion order to fulfill constitutional requirements of being an MP. The lack of political capital crippled Manmohan from the word go. What is puzzling is Manmohan's refusal to contest even in 2009 when he was seen as a decisive leader coming off from surviving a vote of confidence forced by the truculent Communist party that had withdrawn support over the largely popular nuclear deal that India signed with US. Baru repeatedly points out that this lack of assertion was the prime cause of a listless administration that is headed towards electoral disaster. Sonia remaining in the background and influencing policy made her the de facto extra constitutional PM while Manmohan was the figure head. This was plain to the country and Baru's book has no whistle blower quality on that score.The book repeatedly circles around the Manmohan-Sonia tangle.

Baru says that ever since Manmohan lost the candidacy for an MP seat in 1999 he had a distaste of contesting elections. Baru attributes the defeat of Manmohan to his characterization of the genocidal anti-Sikh riots of 1984 as the handiwork of not just Congress but of RSS too. In Delhi, which bore the brunt of those riots, the remarks created a furore amongst the Sikh community which duly saw Manmohan for what he was, an eager power hungry politician. The riots were engineered by Congressmen and, ironically, it was RSS which even attempted to save lives. That a man in pursuit of electoral office would tell blatant lies about a riot in which his fellow community members were massacred tells volumes of his character.

Since 1989 coalition governments have been the order of the day in India. Many times the governments were a hodgepodge of power hungry parties coming together in a post-poll alliance jockeying for plum ministries. Political parties, as a rule, lack principles but they have a pressing need to satisfy their vote blocs and in a coalition government where alliances are stitched together there is little commonality in the prerogatives of the voting blocs thus resulting in a policy stalemate. Manmohan's government was no exception. Decision making became a process that made sausage making look more edifying. There was the GoM (group of ministers) and then there was the EGoM (Empowered Group of Ministers) above the various committees. All of that was done just to keep passing the buck and not take any responsibility for decision making. "At one point in 2007 there were over 50 GoM's".

Baru's book focuses only on his time in the administration which was just the first term of Manmohan. Manmohan's first term was marked by the landmark nuclear deal with US, building better rapport with US and as a result losing support from the Communist parties for whom hating US is a fetishistic obsession.

Distrust of US and Capitalism go hand in hand in Indian thinking and that permeates the body politic of India beyond the bureaucrats down to the common citizen. This despite the fact that the US consulates in India are the busiest in the world granting US visas to Indians. George Bush, in a post 9/11 world, looked to cultivate good relationship with India as part of what is now called in America as the 'Asian pivot'. Bush, unilaterally, sought to breakdown the decades old nuclear-apartheid by the nuclear-club that discriminated against new entrants to nuclear-weapons-club. The only good part of the book is where Baru details the efforts of Bush to bring India and US together on signing the nuclear deal. Of course, no revelations but just plain coherent telling of, possibly, the only achievement of Manmohan's first term.

Though a treaty was signed, Indian officials, in thralldom to their Soviet dream, dragged their feet endlessly into 2007. Senator John Kerry visited India and told the dithering Indian officials that the next President, most probably a Democrat, would not do what Bush was 'ready and willing to do' for India. A prophecy that came true with Barack Obama who let the treaty languish. Obama did not take Bush's pivot to India any further beyond a nominal state dinner for Manmohan. Manmohan, too, for his part, re-elected in 2009 did nothing in the foreign policy space. Baru laments that Manmohan did not capitalize on the one area where he had space, which is, foreign policy.

The reflexive hatred of US by the foreign policy establishment and the communist party is told at some length. Prakash Karat gets some, very justifiably, unflattering portrayal for his willingness to push the country to the brink of political certainty just to satisfy his crusty anti-imperialism credentials and to be a knight in shining armor for his comrades.

The dominance of left-wing thinking in policy circles, particularly amongst economists is underscored by Baru's confession that, as an economist, he used to pooh-pooh the growth of countries like South Korea. No economic model, save the Stalinist, was deemed relevant for India. Baru does his best to project Manmohan's feeble attempts at articulating a foreign policy vision as ground breaking. Manmohan's lack of follow through on any vision frustrated Baru.

A revealing moment in the book is when Baru registers that Manmohan felt that Natwar Singh, whose son was blamed by a UN investigation committee report as having used the UN food program for Iraq to make money, was being thrown under the bus by the Congress party. Here is a man indicted by an international investigation of bribery in a program meant for a people under a sanctions regime and Manmohan feels that the party must have backed that corrupt man. This willing tolerance of corruption will become Manmohan's undoing later. Incidentally, Baru does not flinch that the PM was trying to defend a corrupt minister.

The book unwittingly portrays the chaotic structure of especially the security agencies. India is a country hemmed in by hostile powers that are actively seeking to undermine the country by supporting insurgencies across the land and yet the security setup is pathetic at the organizational level. Internecine bickering between the newly constituted agencies, turf wars and a lack of clarity of which organization should report to whom all disconcertingly portray a country that is yet to learn how to build institutions.

Arun Shourie once wrote a column on the notorious obsession of Indian bureaucracy for who can use which color ink. When Baru makes a file note with red ink he is pulled up by J.N. 'Mani' Dixit because only 'service chiefs can use red ink'.

Like any book written by an official who was part of a regime this book suffers from numerous flaws. Officials write books to exaggerate their roles, to embellish their contributions and to make money. Sanjaya Baru does all three. Baru was only a 'media adviser' to Manmohan and as such he was not an intrinsic part of major policy decisions. His understanding of democracy and democratic institutions is appallingly elementary.

Like any bureaucrat he wants to shine up his boss's image while writing a book that he knows full well could become fodder for his boss's political opponents. Commending that Manmohan wakes up early and watches BBC Baru says the Prime Minister learned of the 2004 Tsunami from BBC before his officials could brief him. India's PM had to learn from a foreign broadcaster about a devastation which killed thousands and displaced tens of thousands. And that too, we are told, thats because the PM gets up early and watches BBC.

Baru does not blink when describing the Intelligence Bureau chief Narayanan as Edgar Hoover. Narayanan, Baru writes, 'earned his spurs' unseating the world's first elected Communist government in Kerala. Narayanan used to keep tabs on credit card spending of editors of major dailies and snooped on political leaders. None of this is recorded by Baru with any concern or alarm. In another attempt to shine up his boss Baru says Manmohan stopped asking for intelligence reports. In a puzzling comment Baru writes "he (Manmohan) not only resisted this temptation to spy on his colleagues, but gave up even the opportunity to be offered such information by declining to take a daily briefing from the intelligence chiefs". This makes it appear that intelligence briefings were almost entirely nothing beyond snooping on political opponents. Is India a modern day democratic republic or a Roman Republic of the days of the Caesars?

The 'Right to Information'(RTI) act was one of the genuinely progressive achievements of Manmohan's tenure. Baru opposed the act as he felt that "the glare of public scrutiny would not scare corrupt and inefficient officers, who would always, fine new means of playing old tricks, but it would certainly discourage honest officers from stating in writing views that might later be used to question their motives". Now, if an officer is honest, why would he/she worry about his/her views coming out in the open? If an honest officer had indeed reflected an honest opinion why would it be impossible to defend against questioning motives? These are old hat excuses of a crusty bureaucracy that was loathe to expose itself.

As 'media adviser' Baru's views of the role of free press in a democracy is shocking. Baru was also a journalist and that makes his views all the more deploringly shameful. Baru had asked for direct access to the PM if he is to function effectively and  to 'feed a hungry media something or the other all the time'. Managing the media is the chief task of any 'media adviser' but to look at it as feeding a 'hungry media something or the other' shows a complete disdain for a critical part of a democracy, the free press. Its almost Stalinist.

Baru does not think twice about asking TV interviewers to 're-record' if he thought the PM 'made a mistake'. The media adviser becomes a media-enforcer when he writes, patting himself, that 'once recording was done only the final approved version was available for telecast'. Tipping off the PM about possible questions to be asked in an interview is par for the course. The PM reading a written statement during an interview to a burning corruption scandal is nothing to be outraged about. All of the above practices would be considered sacrilegious in US or UK.

In US, given the cost of covering the President, news organization adopt a practice of 'pool reporting' whereby any news that the 'pool reporters' get while covering the President is shared equally. The 'pool' almost always accompanies the President when he travels to any place including a golf outing. When Obama team failed to include the 'pool' during a gold outing the press bristled. The point being that access to President is considered inviolate by US press. Indian press is far behind such defense of the role of press's role in a democracy.

US Presidential meeting appointments, especially those at the White House, are public knowledge and access to the list of meetings is a privilege that the press guards zealously. Baru cheerfully records how a Pakistani diplomat used to visit the Race Course Road secretly and how his visits were never recorded in the 'daily programme sheet'.

That the era of political correctness is yet to dawn in India is very evident from the brazenly communal stereotypical remarks that Baru drops nonchalantly. A personal assistant who simply does his job of taking care the boss has his lunch is commended as doing it in the 'best tradition of Malayalee personal assistants'. Baru exults that Narayanan paid him the 'highest compliment a Malayalee' could possibly offer by saying 'I always thought Tamil Brahmins were the cleverest chaps, but youTelugu Brahmins have proved to be cleverer'.

Sanjaya Baru, certified the 'clever Telugu Brahmin' by a 'Malayalee', disdainfully observes that several ministers and officers were appointed to ensure diversity of race or religion or gender instead of merit. It does not cross his mind for one minute that in a county of a billion its easy to find meritorious people across any caste or gender criteria and that diversity need not be implemented at the cost of efficiency. Its only paucity of imagination to think that when Brahmin males are overlooked that only bad choices are made in the attempt to diversify. Baru, again nonchalantly, by now with irritating regularity, observes how Vajpayee picked a 'fellow Brahmin' for an office.

That Sanjaya Baru is a man of very limited intellectual abilities is evident when he fawningly rates Manmohan's ascension to the top position as being above that of Barack Obama becoming America's first black president. Its plain sycophancy typical of a bureaucrat who has not outgrown a clerical mind. At another place Baru prides himself on making fine liquor available for journalist aboard the Prime Minister's plane though he rescinded other undue favors that were extended to journalists of favor in the previous Vajpayee regime.

In his prefatory remarks Baru expresses admiration for Sharada Prasad and especially for the latter's reticence in talking about his days as an administration official. In US it is common for both Presidents and officials to write self-serving accounts of their days in office. The redeeming part is most of them bequeath their papers to some institution and a journalist or historian like Robert Caro could write a detailed impartial biography. Sometimes, as George Kennan or even Steve Jobs did recently, biographers will be commissioned and given complete access to record albeit with the understanding that there will be no interference in how the book is written. Such writing is unheard of in India and thats sad.

The book is a success because it is an easy read and for once gives a simplistic albeit coherent narration of the workings of a government. The failure to delve any deeper on policies or philosophies of governing is a let down only for the serious reader. To be fair to Baru he does indeed portray Manmohan in a flattering light and the criticisms are only there to give it a semblance of balance and ensure that there is a selling point.The memoirist is as much accidental as the subject is and the writing shows it.