Viking, 2014, 320 pp., $44.75
Manmohan Singh would be the first to admit that his rise to the helm of the world’s biggest democracy was fortuitous. He had never won an election; he was taciturn, shy, and behaved awkwardly around other dignitaries. His speeches were dull, his demeanor bland. Singh was well aware of these shortcomings. He referred to himself as “the accidental prime minister”, both jokingly and in self-defense. That moniker is also the title of Sanjay Baru’s new book, which recounts his tenure as Singh’s spin doctor during his first term, from 2004–09.Given world leaders’ tighter security details, meticulously managed public appearances, and extensively edited speeches, they tend to be isolated from the journalists who are designated to document their lives. Baru’s book is welcome, then, simply because it provides an insider’s access to the Prime Minister, his residence, and his staff. From the Marie biscuits that Singh preferred with his tea to the smile Singh used to disarm his critics, the book’s many details form a comprehensive portrait of a man who, despite being India’s Prime Minister, can hardly be called a “public” figure.In 2004, the BJP was confident that its economic record was strong enough to secure reelection. The government had also exploded multiple nuclear bombs for good measure, hoping to cash in on the heady dose of nationalism that followed. But Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, led Congress to a surprising victory. First, however, she had to pacify Congress leaders. As Baru writes, “Political analysts have long made the point that the Congress is itself a coalition of various factions.” Sharad Pawar, an erstwhile senior Congress member, left the party and formed his own in protest against Sonia’s leadership. She also had to satisfy Congress’s coalition partners, namely the Communists. The public’s aversion to a “foreigner” as Prime Minister compelled her to put Singh in place instead, but the compromise suited the Gandhi family: ‘The arrangement also implied that the credit for all the good work done by the government would go to Sonia, and all the blame for all mistakes or failures would go to Dr. Singh.”Singh could hardly make any decisions for himself. Sonia chose his cabinet, and rewards were meted out for loyalty to her and her alone. Basu writes that even the officials Singh chose quickly divided their loyalties, knowing that deference to Sonia was key to their political survival. Sonia hired agents to work in the Prime Minister’s office to report the daily ins and outs to her directly. She endowed cabinet ministers with powerful portfolios, and Singh would have little say in how they pursued their policies.In foreign policy, however—which played little role in electoral politics,—Singh had some freedom to maneuver. That is reflected in Baru’s book: he glosses over domestic policy, and the most substantive and well-written chapters cover Singh’s foreign policy goals. As Singh defines India’s role in the world, he becomes “his own man”, a phrase Baru uses exhaustively, and overall mostly ironically. The “Manmohan Singh doctrine” took shape around a set of principles regarding India’s economic aims and mercantilist policies. (Perhaps fittingly, Singh was also the architect of India’s economic liberalization as Finance Minister in the early 1990s.) Baru describes the change in India’s foreign policy outlook under Singh:
He [Singh] was probably the first Indian prime minister to unabashedly hold up India’s plural secular and democratic credentials as worthy foreign policy principles for India’s international engagement. In the early post-colonial and the long Cold War years India was more comfortable touting its anti-colonial and ‘non-aligned’ and ‘socialist’ credentials than its democratic credentials. Dr Singh took the UPA’s idea of ‘inclusive growth’ at home to global forums where he spoke of ‘inclusive globalization’. This too was new. Rather than fulminate against globalizations, as Indian leaders were wont to do, he chose to demand more inclusive structures, arguing that globalizations could be a win-win process.
Singh participated enthusiastically in regional organizations, especially those in the Asia-Pacific. He pursued Free Trade Agreements, even after Sonia warned him not to do so. He made sure that bilateral trade with China continued to grow, despite border disputes and economic rivalry. In an otherwise torrid second term, Singh’s partnership with Japan is a significant achievement. According to Baru, Singh’s two signature foreign policy achievements were better relations with the United States and regional rival Pakistan.After years of cool, occasionally hostile, relations between India and America (Nixon referred to former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as “that old witch”), both countries were ready move on. After all, circumstances had changed. India wasn’t isolated from the world any more; its markets were opening, and its “non-aligned” stance became obsolete with the end of the Cold War. China’s rise prompted America to look for and support regional powers that could compete with it, and under George W. Bush’s presidency, democracy became a buzzword that India could also happily espouse. Indians consistently rated Bush favorably in opinion polls, just as the rest of the world was dismissing him entirely. Baru writes that Bush was passionate about pursuing better relations with India (though American foreign policy wonks were less enthused).For Singh, U.S.-India relations centered around India’s nuclear program. With a fast-growing economy, India’s energy needs were rapidly increasing. India also felt insulted by the sanctions placed on it after it tested nuclear weapons in the late 1990s. India, along with Pakistan and Israel, isn’t a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, and it described the divide between the nuclear haves and have-nots as “nuclear apartheid.” Singh pushed for the removal of sanctions in place, and for greater civil nuclear cooperation instead. Baru details how Singh fought vociferously, even as the Left, which opposed a dealto transfer civil nuclear technology to India, threatened to withdraw its support to the government. He includes an interesting snippet from February 2008, when John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Joe Biden advised Singh to get a deal done while Republicans still controlled the Senate and the White House, anticipating difficulty with the Democrats in charge. In the wake of the agreement, the Left pulled out of the governing coalition, a no-confidence vote was arranged and then tabled. Singh, however, survived, victorious.Pakistan, too, was a major focus of Singh’s foreign policy efforts. The Singh Doctrine recognized that, as Baru writes, “South Asia’s shared destiny required greater regional cooperation and that this would be facilitated by better physical ‘connectivity’ across the region.” Singh knew, however, that “the single most important exception to this worldview on foreign policy is Pakistan.” The two countries have been rivals since their inception in 1947, and have already fought three wars and multiple skirmishes. Their conflict over the disputed state of Kashmir is intractable. Yet Singh and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf were on the verge of an historic agreement before Musharraf’s government imploded and the moment was lost. Baru describes Singh’s efforts as earnest, recounting Singh’s statements about his birthplace, now in Pakistan, and his wish to have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul.While neither country was willing to give up its territorial claim over Kashmir, the agreement would have blurred the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan criss-crossing through the inhospitable Karakoram mountains. By encouraging “soft” borders that Kashmiris could cross freely, Singh was looking toward the eventual demilitarization of the India-Pakistan border. He was encouraged in the ambition by the rapport he had established with Musharraf, and Musharraf’s willingness to reciprocate. Unfortunately, domestic troubles threatened to dislodge Musharraf, and after the elections in 2008, he was duly ousted. Benazir Bhutto, who was privy to the Musharraf-Singh talks and supported them, was assassinated in December 2007. Her successor and widower, Asif Ali Zardari, had neither the clout nor the acumen to continue where Musharraf left off. Besides, the Pakistani military had reasserted itself, and was firmly against the rapprochement. The attacks by Pakistani militants in Mumbai in November 2008 definitively ended whatever hope Singh had left.Despite Baru’s praise for Singh’s foreign policy, it is difficult to say whether The Accidental Prime Minister ultimately builds Singh’s credibility or destroys it. He describes Singh as a “self-made man”, an intellectual, an “incorruptible” leader with integrity, poise, and determination. But he did not require similar character from others. “He did not feel answerable for the misdemeanours of his colleagues and subordinates. . . . In practice, this meant that he turned a blind eye to the misdeeds of his ministers.” In one scene, Baru describes Singh’s shock when opposition politicians placed stacks of cash on their desks, alleging that Congress tried to bribe them for a favorable vote. It seems absurd that the Prime Minister would be caught so unawares regarding the activities of his own ministers.Yet Singh faced a formidable obstacle if he were to have tried to take control of his own office: the Family. Baru indignantly claims that he was punished for doing his job, which, as media adviser, was to make the Prime Minister look good. One of the more serious “admonishments” Baru received during his tenure was over a rural employment scheme that was broadly successful. The Gandhis were keen to pass off the program as Rahul’s own, though other Congress members, including Singh, had long been working on it. When Baru “half-jokingly” sent a text to a journalist saying that it was Singh’s birthday gift to the country, both Singh and Baru were reprimanded for intransigence. Baru said he earned “the ire of Gandhi family loyalists who treated any effort to promote the prime minister as an affront to the family.”The truth, Baru implies, is that Manmohan Singh was never meant to be a powerful Prime Minister. He was supposed to do exactly what Sonia wanted him to do. Even when it came to peace with Pakistan, Baru writes, “She would want to wait till Rahul became PM so that he could claim credit.” Toward the end, Singh admits his circumstances clearly: “I have come to terms with this. There cannot be two centres of power. That creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party.”The book leaves off when things start going downhill for Congress. Baru barely touches upon the coal and telecommunication scams that robbed the country of billions of dollars, the sagging economy, and the corruption scandals that tarnished even Singh’s reputation. But The Accidental Prime Minister reveals how, even a decade ago, when things were ostensibly rosier, the seeds of Congress’s humiliation in the elections last month were sown. The party saw anyone outside the family as a threat, even its own hand-picked Prime Minister. The Gandhis greedily claimed credit for others’ work; the party’s failures were dismissively meted out to peripheral members. Loyalty to the family was rewarded and dissent punished. If nothing else, Modi’s own candidacy at least promised Indians that their livelihoods were not dependent on their fealty to the Gandhis, something that cannot be said for the Prime Minister, or Baru himself.