PM's surrender to Sonia: Baru proves what we already knew

In the Kurukshetra battle, the blind King Dhritarashtra is given details of the fratricidal war between his sons and the sons of Pandu by Sanjaya – his advisor and charioteer. Sanjaya’s key strength is that he can see events from a distance, and can tell it like it is. He minces no words, spares no feelings for the blind King as his sons are killed one by one by the Pandava brothers. Many stanzas in the Bhagavad Gita begin with the phrase, Sanjaya Uvacha (Sanjaya says)…

So when Sanjaya Baru says something, one needs to listen carefully. His book on Manmohan Singh and the UPA-1 years, when Baru was media advisor to Manmohan Singh, is a telling of the behind-the-scenes power play in the blind king’s durbar – only Singh chose to be willfully blind rather than being born that way like Dhritarashtra. Blessed with the same insight and long vision of his Mahabharata namesake, Sanjaya’s story, told in The Accidental Prime Minister: The making and unmaking of Manmohan Singh, is something we all thought we knew: that Manmohan Singh was a cipher, especially in UPA-2.  The halo that he built around himself with his tough stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008 disappeared in UPA-2 – when the Congress party’s victory with 206 seats shifted the Dynasty’s priorities from government to projection of dynastic succession.

So what is Baru telling us that is different from what we already knew? Actually, there are quite a few reasons why the story needed telling by an insider.

Was Sonia controlling the Manmohan Singh government? AFP

Was Sonia controlling the Manmohan Singh government? AFP image

First, what was apparent could never be formally confirmed because both the PMO and Sonia Gandhi’s courtiers have denied always dual power centres – but nobody believed them. Even now, the PMO’s office has rubbished Baru’s claims, dismissing it as “coloured” and a piece of “fiction.” But the fact is Baru’s book carries more credibility than the PMO’s denial. In fact, the PMO’s denial is effectively Sonia’s denial, since the ring around Manmohan Singh comprises not his own people, but Sonia’s – including his principal secretary Pulok Chatterjee and his media advisor Pankaj Pachauri. Neither of them owed their jobs to the PM.

Second, Baru’s book takes the story forward and effectively paints Sonia Gandhi as almost directly controlling the PMO. The point it makes is the opposite of what was till recently received wisdom: the duality of power centres in UPA, one around the PM and his government, and another around Sonia Gandhi. Baru disabuses us of this notion by claiming that actually there was one power centre – and that power was not the PM. Files were being routinely shared by Sonia Gandhi through the Pulok Chatterjee route – making a mockery of the cabinet system and the oath of secrecy administered to the PM. How can someone not in government be privy to highly confidential files? Was the country’s interest compromised in any way by this illegitimate information sharing?

This is what Baru’s book says: “Pulok, who was inducted into the Manmohan Singh PMO at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, had regular, almost daily, meetings with Sonia at which he was said to brief her on the key policy issues of the day and seek her instructions on important files to be cleared by the PM.”

A caveat is in order here: Baru exited the PMO in 2008 – and so this claim must be the product of Baru’s research or anonymous sources. (Baru was called back from an academic assignment in Singapore around the time of UPA’s 2009 victory to assist Singh in his second term, but the offer was yanked by the last minute, leaving Baru “traumatised”.) The PMO has denied Baru’s claim and said: “It is categorically denied that any PMO file has ever been shown to Smt Sonia Gandhi.” But coming from the PMO, we must now presume the denial is really Sonia’s.

What cannot be denied, though, is that Sonia certainly kept a close watch on the PMO – through Chatterjee. Whether files were actually shared with her or not is a side issue. Clearly, Sonia was the real power centre. There was no dual power centre – Manmohan Singh was a mere branch office of 10, Janpath, at least during UPA-2.

Third, the book also explains why Manmohan Singh, who seemed more relevant in UPA-1, was cut down to size in UPA-2. It seems the media’s pronouncement that Manmohan Singh was the author of the Congress’ victory in 2009 (Headlines screamed, “Singh is King”) unnerved the Dynasty. Sample this passage from the Hindustan Times on 16 May 2009, when the results were out: “Kingmakers are out. There is only one king in this election. And that's Manmohan Singh, the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) that won with a decisive margin, belying predictions of a hung parliament.” (Italics mine)

The media’s attribution of the 2009 victory to Singh can probably be seen as the beginning of the end of the Manmohan-Sonia equation of complete trust. The Economic Times, which quoted extensively from Baru’s book, had this to say today (12 April): “After the UPA's victory in 2009, Singh had assumed the victory would bolster his power, but ‘bit by bit, in a space of a few weeks, he was defanged’. While Singh thought he could induct the ministers he wanted into the cabinet, Baru said Sonia Gandhi ‘nipped that hope in the bud by offering (the) finance portfolio to Pranab (Mukherjee).’ Singh had wanted to appoint his principal economic adviser C Rangarajan to that post. The PM also ‘tried to put his foot down on the induction of A Raja" but after 24 hours ‘he caved in to pressure from his own party and the DMK’.” (Parts in italics in the above paragraph  are direct quotes from the book).

A few things have gotten mixed up here. The induction of Mukherjee happened before the 2009 victory after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. The PM used this opportunity to shift the ineffectual Shivraj Patil out of home and induct the more energetic P Chidambaram in his place. But Baru is right to say he could not induct Rangarajan, who was reduced to being Chairman of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council. It is clear that Sonia brought Mukherjee in to check Manmohan’s intentions in the finance ministry. And given Mukherjee’s poor equations with Singh, this is exactly what happened. Mukherjee got the portfolio in order to put Singh in his place, not because he was somehow Sonia’s favourite. Even Mukherjee’s elevation to the presidency was accidental – it happened because Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh looked like ganging up to propose APJ Abdul Kalam, when Sonia wanted a pliant Hamid Ansari for the job. Moving swiftly, Sonia sent Mukherjee to Rashtrapati Bhavan and Ansari stayed Veep.

Baru’s most important amd damaging disclosure, however, relates to the debunking of the widely belief in dual power centres. Baru says this was because Manmohan Singh simply surrendered to Sonia’s will. Quoting from the book, The Indian Express attributes this statement to Singh: “I have to 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.”

Manmohan Singh, of course, is not going to confirm this, but the statement has a ring of truth around it. It is the most damaging part of Baru’s book – one from which Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi cannot recover.

If the country is going downhill economically, we have to blame Sonia for it, and Manmohan for not standing up to her. There may have been only one power centre, but there is enough blame for distribution among two people.

Updated Date: Apr 14, 2014 08:50 AM

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