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On accidental and reluctant prime ministers

New tell-all book on Manmohan Singh by his former aide, Sanjaya Baru, has created a buzz at the height of elections.
Last modified: 15 Apr 2014 10:07

"The Mischief Man"

That's how Sonia Gandhi had once described Sanjaya Baru, the former media advisor to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, if one believes senior Indian journalist and "Lucknow boy" Vinod Mehta (and there is no reason not to).

Baru has created quite a buzz by publishing his book "The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh", this week in India.

The senior Indian editor's decision to disclose whatever he was privy to, in confidence in the halls of the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office), is controversial. Many believe that Baru should have let Singh’s term expire, which is around 30 days away, before releasing the book. But maybe commercial compulsions prompted the publisher Penguin to release the book at the height of the election heat.

There is however, some danger of assessing a prime minister's effect and success in anything close to real time. For example, the 33rd US President Harry Truman was reviled when he left office, and then highly respected a generation later.

Amongst many things, which are interesting in Baru’s book (which I am yet to finish reading), one thing is definitely established that the dual-centre of power theory did not work as well as the Congress Party would like Indians to believe.

Whether in this lies the genesis of the political confusion, reason for the predictable downslide of the Congress, will be dissected for some time to come.

The first five years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government worked well because the open-market economics of Singh was supported by a global economic upturn.

Plethora of scams

The 2008 crisis was yet to impact the nation before it went to polls in early 2009. Congress increased its tally, stormed back to power.

Post-2009, the country started battling the economic crisis and Singh either ran out of ideas or a better prescription.

Meanwhile, a plethora of scams unraveled due to an active media and an activist class using the tools (Right To Information and journalistic scrutiny) that this government so famously equipped them with, raised some tough questions for the administration.

Singh's ability to govern was doubted, his lack of and lackluster responses aided the perception and an infamous "policy paralysis" became subject of popular debate. Which was followed by "parliamentary paralysis" as the opposition used every opportunity to stall parliament.

This was the time when the Congress tried to take some "strong" political measures to save the party.

The rise of Rahul Gandhi, emerging from the backgrounds was synchronised at the same time. The young Gandhi was expected to turn the tide blowing against his party. His "guru" (Manmohan Singh) had decided to call it quits when the going got tough, namely elections 2014.

Gandhi was facing a hostile corporate community, those whose language, literally and metaphorically, he was adept at. On the other end of the spectrum, the rural populace, the have-nots who were willing to listen to him, he struggled to connect with.

His love-affair with party functioning was yet to mature when he got drafted in and was expected to play a bigger role. It was hardly surprising, however, that ahead of a tough electoral battle, many workers of the grand old party tried to foist a reluctant prime minister.

Meanwhile, Sonia's team had swung into action and pressed the pedal on welfare economics. Bills like Food Security, which got a thumbs up from Harish Khare, another former media advisor to the Indian Prime Minister, in a piece in "The Hindu" titled "This perverse rage against the poor", an essay I consider the piece of the decade.

Flutter in corporate world

Also, important bills like the Land Acquisition bill, the anti-graft Lokpal bill, Whistleblowers bill, and many others were drafted in.

This created a flutter in the corporate world. They sensed that by loading the country with huge welfare bills, Congress is trying to create a bigger crisis amidst the global one, which had already reached Indian shores.

The Food Bill, that guarantees five kilograms of food grain a month, at Indian rupees 2 (under four cents) a kilogram to almost a billion people – or about 67 per cent of the Indian population, got the maximum brickbats from the business elite of India. The industry body FICCI called it a "troublesome act".

At around the same time, the $85bn-a-month US stimulus package was being tapered and this compounded the crisis in emerging markets, including India.

This prompted the corporate world to look for an alternative politico-economic growth model. Fresh from his success of his Vibrant Gujarat investors' summit, right-wing leader Narendra Modi seemed to be the horse they all wanted to back. But in this country of 1.2 billion people and 814 million voters, and one of the largest youth population, good economics is not usually good electoral politics.

Modi, however, had the solution for that too. Growth for youth and corporate and religion which is opium for the masses - "Hindutva" became "Moditva" this summer. Modi, his critics and his "bhakts" (supporters) alike are proclaiming will change the trajectory of India.

Little wonder then that the "accidental prime minister" was definitely not able to stand up to the "self-appointed prime minister".

One wonders what would have been the destiny of this nation had Sonia Gandhi changed the horse when she decided to change the course.