President Manmohan Singh’s ex-media advisor, Sanjay Baru, has opened a proverbial can of worms in his new book, The Accidental Prime Minister — The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh. Baru has effectively portrayed Singh as a paper tiger with negligible control over his cabinet members and his office. According to Baru, the reins of power lie largely in the hands of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who allegedly made key cabinet appointments and signed off on decisions that carried the sitting prime minister’s signature.
Baru, who is now with the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS) claims that Gandhi keeps an eagle eye on the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) through bureaucrat Pulok Chatterjee “who was appointed…at her behest.” Chatterjee, long known for being a Gandhi family confidant, is now the principal secretary to the prime minister. Baru has written that Chatterjee regularly meets with Gandhi, where he seeks instructions and her insight on important policy matters.
Baru paints Singh as an honest, hardworking man, who has little power and has been “defanged” by Gandhi and her acolytes in the Congress Party. According to him, the purpose of such control is to make sure that every achievement of the ruling party is accorded to the Gandhi family, which is popularly perceived as India’s First Family.
But that popularity and power appears to be on the wane. The Congress Party is facing intense competition at the polls and the controversial book, released last Friday, in the middle of the national elections, has garnered a lot of attention. Even as the PMO rubbished the book as an attempt by Baru “…to gain credibility and…exploit [his erstwhile access to the PMO] for commercial gain,” the opposition parties were quick to seize the opportunity to make political hay.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said that the book evidenced what had always been speculated about, “…that there is a twin power sharing system in this government where approvals were given by Sonia Gandhi…. There was no accountability for her actions.” Criticizing the alleged power structure, Sitharaman said that this puts Gandhi “…beyond the pale of questionability.”
The Congress Party, already facing outstanding odds in the ongoing elections is in crisis control mode. Insiders are calling the book, which portrays Singh as a paper tiger, a vengeful act in response to being ousted from the PMO in 2009. A source close to Singh said that the 81-year-old leader, who has been serving as India’s prime minister for ten years, is appalled by the book and feels like he has been “backstabbed” by Baru.
Singh became India’s first Sikh prime minister in 2004. He is one of the longest serving premiers of the 1.2 billion-strong country, besides a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. He has held powerful positions in economic policymaking, including the post of finance minister in 1991, when India first embraced neoliberal economics and made radical reforms.
But he has always been perceived as being a man of learning and erudition, and less as an aggressive political leader. Baru underscores this point by quoting in his book that Singh had confessed to him about having to give up the authority of the PMO to the Congress Supremo because “…there cannot be two centers of power.”
This reiteration by Baru, on the heels of mega scams, economic stagnation and allegations of massive corruption under Congress rule could further derail the party in what has been an increasingly acrimonious election season. Could Baru’s claims that Gandhi is a controlling puppet master, which made Prime Minister Singh, a gentleman scholar, feel like a paper tiger – a man who holds the most powerful office in India yet has no real authority – have any impact on the elections? The reaction from the opposition parties, especially the BJP, certainly seems to imply just that but the final say lies in the hands of Indian voters. It is time to wait and see.
By Monalisa Gangopadhyay