Friday, May 16, 2014

The accidental Prime Minister

I have finished reading Sanjaya Baru's The accidental prime minister.The book is unputdownable. It is an absorbing ring-side account of what went on in the PM's office in 2004-08, the period that Baru served as media advisor. The intrigues at the highest levels, the jostling for positions and the pulls and pressures on the prime minister- one gets an excellent flavour of these.

One anecdote lingers in the mind. M K Narayanan got the job of NSA after Mani Dixit passed away. Other contenders were in the fray. Narayanan seemed to have concluded that it was Sonia Gandhi who swung the job for him. At the beating of the retreat ceremony that year, he rises from his seat in one of the back rows, goes up to Gandhi sitting in the front row and, in full view of the cabinet ministers and foreign dignitaries, does a namaste and returns to his seat.

It is the book's central thesis, however, that is of primary interest. This is that Singh did a great job when he was given a relatively free hand in his first term. In 2009, he made the mistake of thinking the UPA's victory was his. The Gandhi family then went about showing him his place and reminding him that his primary responsibility in his second term was to ensure the succession of the Gandhi scion. This left Singh very little room to operate and that's why his reputation and that of the government went downhill. Baru's contention is that, having appointed Singh as PM, Sonia Gandhi should have let him get on with the job. Instead, she acted in ways that lowered the prestige of the office of PM.

I find it hard to accept Baru's contention. Political authority and power in  a democracy flow from one's standing with the electorate. To put it bluntly, he (or she) who delivers the vote must call the tune. Prime ministers- Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Vajpayaee and V P Singh, to name a few- have exercised authority in the past because they were leaders of the party to which they belonged, were elected to the Lok Sabha and were also responsible for their party's coming to power.

Singh's case was very different. He was not the vote-puller for the Congress. He was appointed PM by the principal vote-puller, Sonia Gandhi. In such a scheme of things, it was only natural that the principal decision-maker should be Gandhi. Singh himself seems to have acknowledged as much when he told Baru that there could be only one power centre. It is Baru who seems to have difficulty accepting this.

Singh necessarily had to operate within a framework created by Gandhi and the party. It was also only to be expected that key political appointments and appointments in the PMO should be decided by Gandhi. If this resulted in the perception that the PM's office was being demeaned, that was implicit in the arrangement that Singh went along, not once but twice. It is naive to argue that Singh should have put his foot down on this or that issue because he happened to be PM. The fact is that he was an appointed PM, not an elected one.

There is a post-script to the book. Singh did not think it necessary to refute Baru's thesis after the book came out, instead choosing to maintain an eloquent silence over it. If he was responsible for the victory of the UPA in 2009, then he is also responsible for the subsequent fall in its standing. Or, if the Gandhis are responsible for the way the Congress' image has nose-dived, then they were also responsible for the victory of 2009. It cannot be that Singh gets the credit and the Gandhi family the blame. (Baru correctly points out that the Gandhis cannot take the credit but not the blame- he should apply the same logic to Singh).

The Congress party would have expected Singh to refute Baru's thesis and say to the world that he would not fault the relationship between himself and the Gandhis. He did not do so. As an article in today's Economic Times correctly points out, that is why Rahul Gandhi chose to stay away from the farewell given to Singh. The Gandhis would be justified in expecting better of somebody that put in the PM's seat for ten years, not to speak of the numerous positions he enjoyed earlier.


sc said...

you argue that if Sonia Gandhi is the main vote puller, it is natural that she should be the main power centre, then I have a question.. why didn't she become the prime minister of the country..?? by staying away from the prime minister post but continuing to take all the decisions, don't you think she reduced the dignity and authority of the prime minister's post?? she became an extra-constitutional authority with no responsibility for the failures but all credit for the successes..and in a democracy, there should be no place for an extra-constituiotnal authority that she and the NAC became. Please do read Shekhar gupta's 'anticipating India' for a different perspective

K.R.Srivarahan said...

Indian Constitution does not distinguish between an elected prime minister and an appointed one. Therefore, authority and accountability are the same in either case. The prime minister is accountable to the parliament and thereby to the people of this country. If the accountability is towards any other authority, our democracy is doomed.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely hope Modi will do Good Governance and not only Farce Marketing for now it is not only Gujarat, it is India the Nation in question.

Anonymous said...

I pitty Manmohan Singh. I would term these as "Governance dynamics" where there is split of power & accountability.

And if I have to just allude it to Corporate Governance, I am sure we will find many akin examples where the CEO/MD merely becomes a "puppet" who is there to say "yes sir / madam" to his/her promoters/vested shareholders.

And there are debates on media juxtaposing & drawing similarity b/w the Sangh parivar & the Gandhi parivar. Not sure what is opinion of readers of this blog, but to me the two are different. The former still has that attribute of "Utilitarian" as it works for masses, whereas the latter seems to have purely self-family driven interest.

Congress needs a revival and the only way (for long run) is to be get rid of Gandhis at the helm.

T T Ram Mohan said...

Sc and Srivarahan, I am not justifying or rationalising the existence of two power centres. I am saying that it was understood by all that that was the arrangement in the two UPA regimes. The question of Singh exercising the full authority of his office simply did not arise, given the understanding on which he got the job.


T T Ram Mohan said...

Sc and Srivarahan, I am not justifying or rationalising the existence of two power centres. I am saying that it was understood by all that that was the arrangement in the two UPA regimes. The question of Singh exercising the full authority of his office simply did not arise, given the understanding on which he got the job.


chandramouli said...

It is very evident that the Gandhis reduced the top post of Prime Minister to that of a "JOB". Dr. Singh in his ambition to be the Prime Minister of India, compromised everything by taking up the "JOB", thereby bringing down the esteem of the office of the PM. History will certainly remember Dr. Singh as the two term PM but also the above fact of his excellent execution of the "JOB", which gave towering heights to Mr. Modi as PM candidate in comparison to Mr. Singh in the eyes of the voting masses.