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Book Review: The Accidental Prime Minister

For someone who usually reviews movies, a book review seems odd. But then, if the topic happens to be Indian Politics, can anyone deny that its plot could be any less dramatic or action packed than a typical Bollywood masala flick? So,  here’s my take on the book that has been gathered much attention as it was launched just days before the Indian General Election of 2014, “The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh” written by his former Media Advisor Sanjaya Baru.

First things first, the theme of book is definitely not about PM-bashing. In fact, the sense one gets is as if his former spin-doctor Baru is still doing the job that he was originally hired for as he credits Singh with things that are mostly (wrongly) attributed to the Gandhi Family. Baru’s book is an insider’s perspective of the functioning of India’s highest office amidst political compulsions that had to work through a maze of saboteurs within the party, coalition partners and the reality of an alternate power centre.

Baru’s book gives a sneak peek into the personality of Prime Minister Singh, letting us know more than what is evident about him as being silent. The author seems to possibly attribute his shyness to a difficult childhood which may have led to his introverted nature. The author also describes a factor that could have played on Singh’s mind when it came to his reluctance in projecting himselfbecause he thought that was the undoing of P.V. Narasimha Rao’ (who) ‘came to be viewed with hostility by the Gandhi family… and has been relegated to an insignificant place in the party’s official memory’.

The book has immense praise for Prime Minister Singh chiefly for his greatest achievement, the civilian nuclear deal which ended India’s apartheid which was eagerly supported by the American President George W. Bush (a global leader that I have great regard for, partly also because he was committed to better Indo-US relations than any of his predecessors or his successor). The book also praises Singh’s efforts to achieve a solution to Indo-Pak issues through trade, but didn’t achieve desired results.

Baru discusses these two topics on foreign policy in great detail, an area which he says was something that the Prime Minister jealously guarded. However, while reading about the challenges faced during the nuclear deal, the political machinations of certain powers that be, it becomes evident that, at times, personal/ political/ partisan ambitions have too much say on the destiny of a nation. It is sad to see the influence of leftist ideologies of certain parties and some worrying about losing a vote bank.

Another interesting point I noted while reading is on the manner in which senior bureaucratic appointments are made. From the description, it seemed as if it were mostly down to familiarity, loyalties, who knew whose ancestors and obviously, political inclinations. Also, it seems as if the best way for someone to become powerful is to become an economist, a journalist or a civil servant or a combination of these. That’s some indirect inference from a book like this.

The most damning thing that the book does is that it puts in black & white of what was an informally known perception in public minds about the party chief being the actual power centre and not the premier. Understandably, it attracted denials from the concerned party and the Government.

Towards the end of the book, the Epilogue has the most empathetic portrayal of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his downfall in the public eye, his unwillingness to assert himself, shying away from taking credit for the electoral victory of 2009, a feat only achieved by Nehru in the past.

On the multiple corruption scandals that dogged UPA-II, the brilliant lines say ‘When the horse you are riding becomes a tiger, it is difficult to dismount’. He also attributes another possible reason about Rahul Gandhi not being up to the job yet, which meant that Singh could therefore not be retired.

Sanjaya Baru’s views about Manmohan Singh are most evident in a couple of paragraphs towards the end of the book, where he admired the man who ‘showed the country that an ordinary, honest Indian could become prime minister through sheer hard work and professional commitment’. Then he goes on to say that he felt ‘tragically cheated that he has allowed himself to become an object of such ridicule in his second term in office, in the process of devaluing the office of the prime minister’.

Putting aside the critics perceptions about Singh being compared with the blind king Dhritarashtra from Mahabharata (interestingly, Sanjaya was the ‘eyes and ears’ of the king in the Krukshetra war, much like what the author was expected to be), Baru likens him to Bheeshma, the patriarch beset with compulsions, ‘condemned to an unsure mandate, an uncomfortable existence and inelegant exit’.

Since the book reports happenings that are off-limits to public, we would never know whether the incidents described in the book actually happened. Although it makes strong statements about a leader nearing the end of his tenure, the book doesn’t come across as a damning critique of the man. If anything, a reader would only have greater respect for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the brilliant technocrat and a good man, who got into this post by chance and surely didn’t deserve the ignominy
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