Makers of The Accidental Prime Minister complicit in BJP's design to disparage Manmohan Singh, demonise Gandhis

It is not a mere accident that The Accidental Prime Minister, the film on former prime minister Manmohan Singh, is scheduled for release on 11 January, just three-four months before India will vote to elect its new Lok Sabha. The film is based on journalist Sanjaya Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, which too was launched amidst the bruising, acrimonious campaign of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Even then it was furiously speculated whether the launch of Baru’s book was designed to hand over a political advantage to the BJP. Perhaps it was thought that the 2014 election campaign would turn the book into a talking point and boost its sales. This logic, nevertheless, presumed that the BJP would exploit Baru’s disclosures about his four-year stint as media advisor (May 2004 to August 2008) to Singh to sully the image of the Congress. The BJP did not disappoint the publisher and the author on this count.

There were plenty of damaging disclosures in the book. Baru quotes Singh telling others on several occasions that he was an accidental prime minister and that the buck stopped with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Worse, Baru claimed that Gandhi was shown important government files for securing her approval. It provided a vital campaign point to the BJP: Did India wish to elect a party in thrall to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which lusts for power and undermines the prime minister’s authority?

Anupam Kher as former prime minister Manmohan Singh in The Accidental Prime Minister.

Anupam Kher as former prime minister Manmohan Singh in The Accidental Prime Minister.

Five years later, The Accidental Prime Minister, the film, seems designed to remind viewers about the alleged imperious nature of the Gandhis, and simultaneously provide the BJP the opportunity to turn, once again, the dynastic rule into its principal electoral issue. Once again, it will be said that box office compulsions explain the release of the film months before the Lok Sabha elections.

Yet the logic of turning The Accidental Prime Minister into a grosser depends, as did Baru’s book launch of 2014, on the BJP to provide publicity to it. The social media posts of the BJP and its sympathisers have not belied the expectations. They sound as if they are still stuck in 2014, albeit jaded, trite and as grating as a stuck gramophone record of the yore.

The enthusiasm with which the BJP has taken to The Accidental Prime Minister is why many suspect, without proof, that there is a hidden hand behind the film. But there is also an additional factor behind their suspicion — Anupam Kher, who plays Singh, is an avid supporter of the BJP.

For instance, in 2015, when artistes and writers were returning awards bestowed on them by the state, in protest against the rising intolerance, Kher had led the "March for India". It was to establish that India is a very tolerant country. Kher was quoted saying, "Every country goes through problems, but nobody has the right to call our country intolerant."

Yet intolerance is an apt descriptor for BJP’s Gujarat, which has employed the threat of violence to abort the release of films on the grisly riots of 2002. The first of these to meet this fate was Chand Bujh Gaya in 2005. Two years later, it was the turn of the much-acclaimed Parzania, which depicted the real-life story of a Parsi couple whose child was separated from them during the riots — and never returned home. Unlike Chand Bujh Gaya, Parzania was not officially banned.

About how the screening of Parzania was sabotaged in Gujarat, social reformer and academician JS Bandukwala wrote in 2007, "[Babu] Bajrangi decided Parzania would hurt the image of Gujarat, and therefore, must not be screened. In typical godfather style, he made an offer to theatre owners which they dared not disobey."

Convicted in 2012 in the Naroda Patiya massacre case and sentenced to life imprisonment, Bajrangi was allowed by the state administration to terrorise theatre owners.

Such menacing tactics have been used to target even those films that do not have the 2002 riots as their theme. For instance, most multiplexes did not show Aamir Khan’s Fanaa at all because he had supported the Narmada Bachao Andolan and issued statements against the Gujarat government’s decision to raise the height of the Narmada dam. Or, recall the manner in which a host of BJP chief ministers expressed their opposition to screening Padmaavat, a film based on a 13th-Century myth.

Given the BJP’s record of stalling the release of films it considers inimical to its interest, The Accidental Prime Minister becomes an eloquent example of essentially illiberal forces exploiting the liberal ethos to spin propaganda. This remark will enrage the producers of The Accidental Prime Minister. They will claim their goal was aesthetics, not political.

Their claims could have been believed but for one fact, the film's trailer shows The Accidental Prime Minister venturing beyond the years about which Baru wrote. For instance, the trailer shows an imperious Sonia Gandhi telling Singh that he cannot resign as the prime minister. Why? Because the scams buffeting his government have made it unpropitious for Rahul Gandhi to occupy the prime minister’s chair. Singh acquiesces, or so the trailer makes it out.

Baru’s book, in the main, ends in the first few months of the UPA returning to power in May 2009. Scams implicating some in Singh’s Union Ministry had not yet surfaced. But to give a contemporary touch to his book, Baru resorted to writing a 14-page epilogue in which he speculated why, despite the humiliation, Singh did not resign.

Here is Baru in his own words, "Speculation was rife that all was not all well. When a family friend of Rahul, working as an analyst with a foreign consulting firm, put out a paper suggesting that Singh had become a liability for the government, the Delhi durbar was agog with speculation. Was this a message from the family itself? After a series of other humiliations many wondered why Singh was not calling it a day."

He then goes into a furious overdrive asking some more questions that, alas, are typical of journalists who throng Delhi’s press club after 7 pm: Could it be this, could it be that? Sample this: “Should he [Manmohan Singh] have resigned at the first whiff of scandal, owning moral responsibility for the corruption of others, instead of defending the government? Perhaps. Could he have resigned? Maybe not. The party would have hounded him for ‘letting it down’." Baru raises questions and then provides readers with a range of possibilities.

From the trailer, the juicy or controversial bits of the film seem based on the epilogue. Baru’s book is certainly not an account of 10 years of Singh’s prime ministership. He did not have an insider’s view after October 2008, nor did he interview, judging from the book, those who were in Singh or Sonia’s inner circle. In early 2014, it was clear that the Congress was going to be drubbed in the elections. Rahul Gandhi was mocked and lampooned. Baru, too, chose to join the fun, having his revenge against the party for denying him the post of secretary in the PMO that Singh had wanted him to take.

Here is what Baru writes, “As the government’s popularity declined, the Congress party began to switch gears and focus on succession, hoping Rahul Gandhi would rise to the occasion and take charge. Planted stories began to appear in the media about Singh’s imminent retirement. However, Rahul’s repeated inability to deliver results for the party in a series of state elections meant that Singh could not be ‘retired’ and created a vacuum at the top.” Then follow some more speculative analyses of events of 2013.

The trailer is principally based on this 14-page speculative epilogue. It is presumably the pivot of the film. It is certainly more than just an academic question to wonder whether The Accidental Prime Minister’s director, Vijay Ratnakar Gutte, who is also one of its writers, would have had the courage of his artistic conviction to fictionalise countless accounts that accuse then chief minister Narendra Modi, on the basis of speculations and deductions a la Baru, of deliberately fanning the 2002 riots. That is precisely why all those associated with The Accidental Prime Minister are complicit in the BJP’s design to disparage Singh and demonise the Gandhis.

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Updated Date: Dec 29, 2018 00:00 AM

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