Quotes from ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ by Sanjaya Baru

Read the review for the book

These excerpts are quite long-winded (sometimes spanning multiple paragraphs), so I have avoided putting them in the quote format as they become difficult to read. Instead, I’ve put my comments in italics. If you’re not in the mood to read through so much text, I can understand. But, at least read the poems that I’ve highlighted in block quotes.

When the horse you are riding becomes a tiger it is difficult to dismount.

When the horse you are riding becomes a tiger it is difficult to dismount.

Sanjaya Baru trying to explain why Manmohan didn’t resign from office.

‘If the PM keeps finance, what will they give me?’ Chidambaram wondered aloud. I was amused and surprised to hear that question from the usually self- confident Chidambaram. There was already speculation in the media that he would be given charge of commerce or telecommunications, and I mentioned that to him. He retorted angrily, ‘Mr Editor, I have been finance minister before! Do you think I will accept anything less than a senior Cabinet position?’

So I asked Chidambaram what he would do if he was not on the Hill. ‘I will sit in the backbenches!’ he declared. ‘Good,’ I told him, pulling his leg, ‘you can then continue your weekly column with FE (Financial Express)’

I had never imagined the otherwise suave and sophisticated (and somewhat haughty) Chidambaram to be capable of expressing his desires in such a blatant manner. Quite a revelation!

Faced with a veritable avalanche of advice urging him to drop the idea of pursuing the civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement with the United States, including from many of his closest aides—advice that he did not finally take—Dr Singh said to me with a smile, ‘It is time, again, to be foolish.’

There are many instances where Manmohan smiles his sagacious all-knowing smile and wins Baru over. In these smiles, Baru imagines there to be the sign of Manmohan’s wisdom.

The second time Patel approached me was when the leader of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi Chandrashekhara Rao, also a Cabinet minister, demanded that I be sacked from government for issuing a denial to the media about a claim that he had made regarding the subject of his conversation with Dr Singh. Rao had claimed that he met the PM to press for an early decision on Telangana while he had, in fact, met him for some other purpose and the Telangana issue had never come up in the conversation. This is what I had said to the Telugu media when pressed by them for an account of what actually transpired at the meeting. Patel wanted me to apologize to the minister and end the controversy. I had to tell Patel that my briefing was factual and I saw no reason to apologize, but would do so if instructed by the PM. I made it clear I only took my orders from Dr Singh. The matter ended there. Rao reportedly calmed down after calling me names. A few weeks later, on a visit to 7 RCR, he hugged me warmly and offered to invite me home for a meal of Hyderabadi biryani, but the invitation never came.

Baru was not a politician, nor a bureaucrat. He has no qualms in unmasking the hypocrisy and shameless opportunism of the politicians in this book.

That Dr Singh was more adept at handling the Left and Chidambaram was less so became obvious even as Chidambaram, Yechury and I walked back to the car park from the meeting. I quipped to Chidambaram that he should feel reassured by the fact that when Yechury said the CPI(M) would be the UPA’s ‘watchdog’ , he only meant that they would bark but not bite. A diplomatic finance minister would have either kept quiet or said something nice as a gesture of gratitude. But Chidambaram, being Chidambaram, could not resist a jibe. He retorted, in Yechury’s hearing, ‘Either way he agrees that he is a dog!’

Another example of Chidambaram’s proud and conceited nature.

On 9 May, when he was in Moscow, NDTV ran a story that External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh had secured a low ‘score’ on the PM’s ‘report card’ and was likely to be dropped from the Cabinet. Natwar was most unhappy and took the day off on ‘health grounds’. This news reached the PM in Moscow when he was in the midst of a briefing at his hotel. He asked me to find out what exactly NDTV had reported. When I briefed him he burst out angrily, ‘Tell Prannoy to stop reporting these lies.’

I called Prannoy Roy, the head of NDTV, and had just begun speaking to him when the PM asked for my mobile phone and spoke to Prannoy himself, scolding him like he was chiding a student who had erred, saying, ‘This is not correct. You cannot report like this.’ Indeed, the relationship between him and Prannoy was not that of a prime minister and a senior media editor but more like that of a former boss and a one-time junior. This was because Prannoy had worked as an economic adviser in the ministry of finance under Dr Singh. After a few minutes, Prannoy called me back.
‘Are you still with him?’ he asked.

I stepped out of the room and told him that I was now alone. ‘Boy, I have not been scolded like that since school! He sounded like a headmaster, not a prime minister,’ complained Prannoy.

One of the many examples that show the integrity and compassion of Manmohan Singh.

In defending Dr Singh’s policies I found myself getting into many such arguments with Congressmen. Once on a flight with the PM on an Air Force aircraft, Mani Shankar Aiyar was holding forth on the problems of the nuclear deal. Aiyar was not a supporter and had even said to some journalists that if the PM threatened to resign on the issue he should be allowed to go. On this flight he was openly critical of the US and said he was a proud communist who would rather have the old Soviet Union back than befriend the US.

I had to tell the outspoken Congressman that if he were a minister in Stalin’s Cabinet then the official who would have been my equivalent, Stalin’s media adviser, would simply have opened the door of the aircraft and pushed him out. I reminded him that he felt secure criticizing the PM on the PM’s official aircraft because Dr Singh was a gentleman, not a dictator, nor a party boss!

Baru doesn’t shy away from taking credit for a great many powerful statements.

In the PMO, some officials shared my unfashionable scepticism about the efficacy of the RTI Act but Sonia was so committed to this initiative that no one seriously resisted it. I was not convinced that transparency, in terms of public access to internal government communication, was a necessary condition to making the government more responsive to people’s needs, and to good governance. By this token, few organizations, including most NGOs and the media as an institution, were ‘transparent’ even though they were more ‘responsive’. The glare of public scrutiny would not scare corrupt and inefficient officers, who would always find new means of playing old tricks, but it would certainly discourage honest officers from stating in writing views that might later be used to question their motives. I felt Dr Singh was sympathetic to my view though he never explicitly said so.

This book is not just a reflection on Manmohan as a PM, but also Baru’s views on his policies and decisions. And such frank explanations of his stand on things, add another facet to the story.

One of his favourite couplets, by the poet Muzaffar Razmi, which he quoted on more than one occasion, in Parliament and to Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, was:

Ye jabr bhi dekha hai, (Much injustice has been seen)
Taareeq ki nazron ne (In the saga of history)
Lamhon ne khata ki thi, (When for a mistake made in a moment)
Sadiyon ne saza payi (We are punished for centuries)

Oh! What a poignant couplet! One thing that I find most endearing about Manmohan is his love for fine poetry. He has read out poems on more than one occasion in parliament.

Before his first interaction with the media in July in Bangkok, I had gone into the PM’s room to ask him if he would like to freshen up before facing the media. His instant reply, with a smile, was, ‘Kya sher kabhi apne dant saaf karta hai?’ (Does a tiger ever brush its teeth?)

A rare moment of confident banter from Manmohan, which would have been lost had it not been for this book.

Releasing a book by diplomat Jagat Mehta in April 2006, Dr Singh regretted the fact that scholars had to depend on the memory of retired civil servants to get a glimpse into the thinking that had gone into policymaking. While agreeing that memoirs like Mehta’s were very useful for scholars, he said, ‘I do hope that we do not have to depend only on memory and personal notes for a record of policymaking. I think the time has come for us to have at least a fifty-year rule, if not a thirty-year rule, that allows scholars and researchers free access to declassified official papers. I would like to have this issue examined so that we can take an early and informed decision. In the long run, this will make it possible for us to draw appropriate lessons from the past and make effective decisions for the future.’

The next day, I took a printout of the PM’s speech and put up a note for his approval saying he might wish to instruct the principal secretary to follow up on this statement and take the necessary steps to have this new policy announced. I heard nothing about this afterwards. Years later, after I left the PMO, I asked Dr Singh why he never followed up on that announcement. His matter-of-fact reply was, ‘This should have been done by the BJP when they were in office. The Congress party is not yet ready to take this step.’ The implication of his remark was that any declassification of official papers based on a thirty-year rule would begin to throw more light on Nehru’s and Indira’s time in office.

Manmohan failed to deliver on many counts and throughout the book, Baru doesn’t fail to acknowledge that.

One evening in late 2007 after sitting through a long inconclusive discussion on the subject of loan waivers with senior officials and ministers, Dr Singh walked back to his private working space at 7 RCR. There, in that quiet corner, looking out into the patch of green where a peacock or two would always be walking around, pecking at food, he sat and gave me a long lecture on the history of loan waivers in India. It was the British, he explained, who first understood the nature of rural indebtedness and the importance of keeping the farmer alive. Rural credit, he recalled K.N. Raj telling him, is a ‘public good’. Economists define a ‘public good’ as any good or service that, once provided, does not discriminate between beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries. A street light is a common example of a public good. Government spends money on street lighting and everyone who uses the street, irrespective of whether she is a taxpayer or not, a citizen or a visitor, benefits from it. A loan waived by a bank may appear to be a private good since the primary beneficiary is the debtor. However, in keeping farmers alive, in sustaining the livelihood of farmers and in ensuring rural social stability, a loan waiver in the case of an impoverished and highly indebted farmer would have wider social benefits. Many countries, including developed market economies, justified farm subsidies on such social grounds. A debt waiver was a subsidy, and a public good.

Economic policy is not easy to understand and by giving such simple explanations, Baru ensures that even a layman will not find it hard to follow the story. In fact, surely, they will even come to enjoy it.

Still lurking within the Oxbridge economist was a bit of the Punjab farmer, and he knew that this initiative would resonate well in rural India. After Chidambaram’s budget presentation, Dr Singh took ownership of the initiative through a fervent reply to the debate on the motion of thanks to the President, in March 2008, and recited from memory Oliver Goldsmith’s lines from The Deserted Village:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ill a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;
Princes and Lords may flourish, or may fade;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride;
When once destroyed can never be supplied.

What did I tell you about Manmohan’s taste in poetry? :-D

In his own inclinations, Arjun Singh was no leftist. His political career, so far, had not reflected any such ideological leanings. He had worked his way up the political food chain in Madhya Pradesh politics, becoming the state’s chief minister. Leaving behind a string of allegations of corruption and the mismanagement of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak tragedy, he moved to Delhi and positioned himself as a rebel, opposing Narasimha Rao’s economic policies and ingratiating himself to representatives of the Muslim community by demanding Rao’s resignation over the handling of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. This was a political ploy—his secularism was as deep as that of the average Congressman. With respect to Dr Singh, too, Arjun Singh’s game was no different from that of the prime minister’s other political rivals, namely to appear more pro-Left than the PM in the hope of ousting Dr Singh with Left support.

A merciless take-down of Arjun Singh.

I could see that Dr Singh was ready and willing to invite Musharraf and the matter was getting delayed because of the usual bureaucratic processes and diplomatic protocol. I suggested to him that he could use the opportunity provided the following morning when he was scheduled to speak in the Lok Sabha by using his intervention in a parliamentary debate to publicly extend an invitation to President Musharraf. He asked me to give him a draft statement.

Next morning, on 10 March 2005, I drove to 3 RCR and handed him a draft before he left home. He read it, folded the paper and placed it in his pocket, as was his wont, saying, ‘Let me think about it.’ Later that morning, I went to the Lok Sabha to hear him speak. He spoke for over half an hour, replying to all the points made by several members in the course of the debate. I waited anxiously to see what he would say when talking about foreign policy.

He went through the discussion on foreign policy as well, and finally, when he came to the very end, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the folded sheet of paper and read from it:

Mr Speaker, Sir, I am happy to inform the honourable members of the House that I have decided to invite President Musharraf to come to India to watch a cricket match between our two teams. It is my earnest desire that the people in our neighbouring country and their leaders should feel free to visit us whenever they wish to do so. Be it to watch a cricket match; be it to do some shopping; or be it to meet friends and family—India is proud to be an open society and an open economy. I do hope that President Musharraf and his family will enjoy their visit to our country.

What a moment of triumph this must have been for Baru! Having influenced such a historic event, he certainly deserves to bask in its glory.

‘Who are the wise men around whom I can turn to for advice?’ – Manmohan

This phrase comes quite often in the book and shows that Manmohan, being the economic stalwart that he was, never shied away from seeking counsel.

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