Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Book Review | The Accidental Prime Minister

The Accidental Prime Minister is by design a book meant to salvage the reputation of India's 13th Prime Minister

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once said he believed that history would be kinder to him than contemporary media. He does not have to wait for historians. His erstwhile media adviser Sanjaya Baru has written a book that is not only kind to Singh but is effusive in its praise for him. The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh is by design a book meant to salvage the reputation of India’s 13th Prime Minister.

From economic policymaking to ending India’s nuclear apartheid, Baru can find no fault with Singh. In the author’s eyes, Singh’s first innings (2004-09) was outstanding; his second round, beginning 2009—by which time Baru had left the Prime Minister’s Office—was full of trouble for Singh.

Unwittingly, however, the Manmohan Singh who emerges in the book is at a considerable remove from his perceived image of an apolitical and tactically naïve leader who landed the prime minister’s job accidentally. Baru does not say so directly but throws enough hints, scattered across his book, that show Singh in a different light.

Two are worth noting: Singh’s attitude and response to corruption and his unwillingness or inability to quit as prime minister at the right time. Both proved fatal to his image.

Consider corruption first. Singh’s reticence to tackle his erring colleagues is not a product of his political weaknesses but one of personal choice.

“Dr Singh’s general attitude towards corruption in public life, which adopted through his career in government, seemed to me to be that he would himself maintain the highest standards of probity in public life, but would not impose this on others," Baru writes in the book. (p84)

If this is true, it explains a lot about the nature of corruption in his government. The attitude that Baru ascribes to Singh is one suited to a civil servant—detached and aloof—but one that is unsuitable for a head of government. As later events showed, it was corruption that hit the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) fortunes the most. Singh’s passivity was certainly a reason why the problem acquired such threatening proportions.

The second personality trait, his inability to quit when he ran into rough political weather is equally complicated. In UPA-1, Singh successfully used the threat of resignation to get the India-US civil nuclear deal cleared past a sceptical Congress leadership. One reason why that threat worked was the absence of a next rung leader who could take over if Singh quit. By UPA-2, that problem had been obviated: Rahul Gandhi was on the horizon. At that moment, with one crisis after another hitting his government, Singh withdrew his hand. After the nuclear deal, he never threatened to resign.

It is hard not to conclude that Singh used the threat to resign as a strategic device. But having used it once, he knew it would not work again.

Baru raises the question but chooses to defend his master. “Should he 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’. It would have then accused him of trying to occupy the high moral ground and quitting in principle to avoid being sacked for not ‘delivering the goods’. When the horse you are riding becomes a tiger it is difficult to dismount," Baru writes (p281). This is nothing more than an adroit defence.

Had Singh quit when things began taking a turn for the worse, his party and its leadership would have been in trouble and not Singh. But he chose to linger on until his party came to believe that he was a liability. The writer of The Accidental Prime Minister highlights many such points when Singh could have taken the decision to go. Baru ends by showing how Singh willingly chose a different course.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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