From Sanjaya Baru to Natwar Singh: Why Manmohan didn't defend Sonia

Towards the end of his decade-long term as the country's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh cut a sorry picture, even to his greatest admirers. You'd think that in contrast to the aggressive political rhetoric India favours,  Singh's calm and dignified silence would be read as resilience. But, no.

The Time magazine put the former Prime Minister's face on its cover with the words 'The Underachiever' splashed across it in bold font. Closer home, Sanjaya Baru, who served as Singh's media adviser from 2004-2008, wrote a book titled 'The Accidental Prime Minister'. To add insult to injury, when the country was expecting that the dust to settle on Singh's alleged failures, former Congressman Natwar Singh dropped another bomb about Singh. And Natwar spoke in the language more familiar to India's political class - he called the former PM a 'ghatiya insaan'.

Most allegations against Singh have stemmed from one common perception - that he is putty in the hands of the Gandhi family, he is the real 'chowkidaar' PM. Natwar Singh alleges that Manmohan Singh doesn't 'have a stiff spine'. And in Baru's book that was labelled 'explosive' by the media, he accuses Sonia Gandhi of gagging Singh repeatedly.

Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. AFP.

Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. AFP.

So when we heard of the former PM's daughter Daman Singh's book 'Strictly Personal: Manmohan and Gursharan', we expected a little more clarity on the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi relationship. Sadly, Daman's book and her interview with Sagarika Ghose published in The Times of India maintain the same steely silence that has always marked Manmohan's response to the Sonia Gandhi issue.

Daman Singh begins with telling Ghose that Manmohan Singh had casually told her in 2009 that the Congress won't win another term. Given that the Congress won convincingly in 2009, one would have expected Singh to be upbeat about the politics of his party. However, his pessimism, or should we say uncanny premonition, raises several questions about the internal churning within the Congress.

Though Daman doesn't elucidate the reasons for Manmohan Singh's statement, it is clear that the former PM may have had some hint of the 'son rising' exercise that the Congress was to soon undertake. Possibly, he saw its futility too.

Asked about his relationship with another former Congress PM, the late PV Narasimha Rao, Daman waxes eloquent about Rao's struggle against stiff resistance from within the Congress and how he gave Singh a free reign as the Finance Minister of the country, which led to the much-talked about liberalisation of the economy in 1991.

Daman says, " There was a lot of resistance to reforms from within the Congress party, he had to constantly explain to people what he was doing. The whole process was very difficult. Narasimha Rao had to steer the party through it."

It is interesting to note here that Sonia Gandhi is not known to have had the greatest relationship with Narasimha Rao. Gandhi's equation with Rao, the first Congress Prime Minister from outside of the 'family' has been described as 'frosty'. In fact, an article on Rediff.com notes how Rao was given the royal ignore by Gandhi after the end of his term as the Prime Minister. "In fact, despite being a former AICC president and a prime minister, Narasimha Rao was not just excluded from the Congress Working Commitee since the current heir to the Nehru dynasty took charge of the party in 1998, he was not even allowed to become one of the numerous 'special invitees', most of whom get selected for their cheerleader skills rather than any other contribution," the article notes.

Curiously though, in the interview, Daman Singh refuses to talk about Manmohan Singh's relationship with Sonia Gandhi.  She dismisses the question of Manmohan Singh's relationship with Sonia Gandhi by saying, "That came later... You'll have to ask him." It becomes clear that the Singhs don't want to talk about Sonia Gandhi. More interestingly, it also appears that they don't want to defend her. 

Every time allegations about him playing into the Gandhis' hands has surfaced, Manmohan has maintained a stony silence. Even when he countered the accusations, he did so by casting doubts on the motives of the accusers.

When Sanjay Baru's book was launched, it was the PMO that came out and declared that there was no truth in the former media advisor's claims. Back then, Upinder Singh, Manmohan's eldest daughter had come to the defence of her father, calling Baru's move highly 'unethical'. Again, while she condemned Baru, she didn't quite question Baru's claims.

Following Natwar's Singh's revelations too, Manmohan Singh has spoken up. He has said Natwar's claims are a 'marketing gimmick'. He has also pointed out that one shouldn't exploit 'private conversations' for capital gains. Once again, he has pointed out the ethical inappropriateness of Natwar's move, but doesn't counter the charge that Sonia Gandhi held the reins to the PMO.

Could it be that the former prime minister believes the Congress first family's interference has much to do with his failures as PM? His  steely silence on Sonia Gandhi, who he has collaborated with for several years now, points in that direction.