The relationship between the Gandhi family and the prime minister can indeed be subject to a variety of interpretations, and his former media adviser has every right to have his say. But objectivity and fairplay demanded that this tract was not just about the complexities of the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh partnership, but also about why such a partnership endured and flourished for so long in spite of the differences between them. And one does not get a concrete answer to the basic question whether, at the end of the day, the partnership was good or bad for the country. The differences have been so emphasised as to reach the conclusion that Manmohan Singh’s loyalty to the Gandhis was “misplaced” and went generally “unrewarded.” One is left wondering whether it could have been only that, for after all Manmohan Singh will go down in history as only the second prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru to have had two full consecutive terms.
Baru’s narrative makes it appear that it was the party or the Gandhi family that stood between greatness and the prime minister… however, that does seem to be a trifle tendentious, considering the fact that Singh lacked a political base of his own all along — from the time he started under PV Narasimha Rao in the 1990s, and never built one even as he completed 10 years in the top job. To emphasise only one aspect of the picture to the exclusion of others seems rather tenuous logic, if not wholly biased.
The book, even if its intentions were honourable, turns out to be an absorbing even though somewhat lopsided narrative of the functioning of a partnership that lasted over a decade.
One does not for a minute doubt that there were conscious, deliberate attempts from within the Congress to undermine the Sonia-Manmohan equation during the course of the tumultuous period — attempts that seemed to exaggerate the differences of perception so as to drive a wedge between the two. But the obverse is also true: To be fair to her, the Congress president and UPA chairperson almost unfailingly tried to smoothen things and rein in such tendencies. Here’s an example. When asked at the beginning of the second term whether any change in the leadership was being contemplated, Sonia Gandhi categorically refused and declared that Manmohan was the only leader. Itinerant correspondents would readily recall how Sonia Gandhi went to meet the prime minister always at his residence, and always waited for him at meetings. The only time Dr Singh drove to 10 Janpath was to attend Congress Working Committee meetings!
According to Baru, the key to Brand Manmohan was his projection of being his own man. And the weakness lay in his equation with Sonia, where he would always be tormented by the question whether he was her puppet. One does not get an answer which description, on balance, proved more enduring. The inability to answer that critical question unequivocally deprives the reader of a chance to comprehend one of the major issues in contemporary political history. It is not clear what were the factors that led to the gradual dilution of Manmohan Singh. Was it he who ceded space instead of Sonia Gandhi encroaching on his domain? One does get the sense that on issues such as the selection of his team, the prime minister was constrained by the limits imposed on him but this vital point is not dealt with in detail — something which the book could have done but does not do to an adequate enough level.
One gets to know that in terms of running the coalition, the prime minister always had the freedom he wanted. He did that without interference, accommodating the coalition partners to the extent he could. The author states that he had on his part suggested to the prime minister to keep the relatively younger set of ministers in the loop, but whether the suggestion was accepted has not been categorically stated. And how one hoped for answers as to why the leadership persisted with the likes of A Raja for such a long time after the 2G scam became public when it was patently clear to all that in so doing, the credibility of UPA in its second avatar would hit rock bottom.
One presumed also that Baru, being an admirer of the prime minister, owed it to the reader to conclusively say as to when exactly he felt disillusioned by him. There is indeed no mystery attached to the undoubted existence of dual power centres in which Sonia Gandhi was indeed the supreme authority — but that was so because she is a politician, something that Manohan Singh, despite being in politics for two decades, has not become. Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh’s first boss in politics — had in an interview more than a decade ago succinctly said it all when he talked about Dr Singh being an “economist and not a politician”. Rao had then clarified that it was his own political instincts and Manmohan Singh’s skills as an economist that managed the eventual course of economic reforms. Clearly, that ‘arrangement’ has lasted till date, with Manmohan Singh deferring to political authority. That was true of the Rao years, and that has been true of the subsequent period as well. It was politics first and economics later through the entire period, and not a case of Manmohan’s expertise as an economist that reigned supreme in matters related to economic reforms, divorced from the surrounding political realities.
There have all along been those traditional Congressmen starting from the late Arjun Singh down to now, who were not comfortable with the reform regime. Whatever headway has been made is not because, but in spite of such critics. In this situation, there is no charming ambiguity about the existence of personality clashes and ideological disagreements between the Congress and its leadership on the one side and the pro-reformists on the other. There was the instance when Singh declared at the White House that the people of India “deeply loved” the US President George W Bush — a statement that caused considerable consternation and also amusement. On many occasions, Manmohan Singh’s views have prevailed, including on the question of the civil-nuclear deal with the US, after Sonia Gandhi deferred the decision to him.
It is a moot point what contributed to the UPA coalition’s success in the 2009 election: Was it a result of the farm loan waivers and schemes like MGNREGA or was the mandate about Manmohan’s personal style and content? Judging from the book, it was perhaps a mix of both rather than one to the exclusion of the other. From his pronouncements on the nuclear deal and relations with the United States, Pakistan, etc — Manmohan had to curb his own individual instincts to try and fit them within the overall politics of the Congress, but not very successfully. To say that Manmohan Singh felt completely shaken and let down when the parliamentary crisis over the nuclear deal erupted has to be viewed in its overall political perspective, and not just as someone’s subjective reaction. The Congress and Manmohan Singh were at no point in time mutually exclusive categories, and this attempt to paint that kind of picture is, to say the least, inaccurate.
It is indeed impossible to rationalise the UPA’s response to several issues ranging from the economy to corruption. In the public perception, the fact that Manmohan’s ‘good man’ image stood severely compromised by his so-called moral ambivalence on corruption is a fact that is too glaring to be missed. It is widely felt, and not without foundation, that he did not quite reflect the decisive streak that was needed to strike at those who were responsible for the sleaze.
To picture Manmohan Singh’s legacy as uniquely, his own contribution will be historical in the extreme. The successes and the failures have to be shared by the key players. In the chapter ‘Responsibility without Power,’ Baru writes that nobody in the Cabinet seemed to feel that he owed his position, rank or portfolio to the prime minister. One would have liked to know what efforts Manmohan Singh made to shake off the strings that made him so subservient. Going by Baru’s account, he never did.