The Accidental Prime Minister is the story of a tragedy. This is not entirely an insignificant achievement in a country where tragic narrative does not come naturally. A rare example was Jaya, an early rendering of the Mahabharata’s central story, whose narrator was another Sanjaya from two thousand years ago. Manmohan Singh’s rise and fall has all the ingredients of a classic tragedy: a good person falls through a series of irredeemable reversals, whose cause is a mistake, a ‘tragic flaw’ which lies in human frailty.
Manmohan’s rise will inspire generations of Indian children. Till the age of twelve, he lived in a dusty village without electricity, running water, access to a hospital or a road; he walked miles to school and studied under the dim light of a kerosene lamp; but by twenty-two, he was at Cambridge, from where he went on to do a PhD at Oxford; eventually, he rose to become finance minister and prime minister. Then, he fell, presiding over an ineffectual and corrupt government that became paralysed—inflation rose, growth fell, bringing incalculable misery. He was repeatedly humiliated but he clung to power, and thereby diminished the office of the prime minister. This is Baru’s tale.
It is heart-rending to see a good, intelligent and humble man fall from those heights; it induces in the reader great pity and, eventually, catharsis. Manmohan’s ‘tragic flaw’ was his shy, self-effacing and habitually unassertive—almost timid—nature. He was thrown into a job that required considerable determination and assertion in order to translate thought into action. There was also an external flaw—as it sometimes is in ancient Greek tragedy when the hero must battle fate. In this case, it lay in two centres of power. Manmohan owed his job to Sonia Gandhi; he was not his own master; he could not freely appoint his own ministers, not even his own staff in the PMO. This led to paralysis in the government.
The enduring legacy of Sanjaya Baru’s book will not only be in a skilful telling of an Indian tragedy. The Accidental Prime Minister will in fact become a model for aspiring writers of long narrative non-fiction. The last book I read with comparable energy and narrative power was B.K. Nehru’s over-long Nice Guys Finish Second. I sometimes meet retired civil servants and businessmen who want to immortalise themselves with a book, and they ask for a good model. Now they have one. I had enjoyed Baru’s newspaper columns over the years, but I never imagined he had it in him to write a sustained, compelling political narrative.
‘Narrative non-fiction’ is essentially a marriage of the arts of storytelling and journalism, an attempt to make drama out of the observable world of real people, places and events. The secret is that a book must reveal and do so in a compelling voice. Nabokov, no surprise, said that ‘narrative’ is often confused with ‘plot’, but they’re not the same thing. “If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that’s not narrative; that’s plot. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart, that’s narrative.” This is Baru’s achievement—no mean feat, indeed!
Sanjaya Baru is also a sound economist, albeit of the Keynesian variety. So, I was disappointed that he did not go deeper into an issue that is uppermost in many minds. Why did the dream team of reformers not reform? The slow and steady pace of reform since 1991 virtually came to a halt after 2004. Even dawdling reforms add up and they added up to make India the second fastest growing economy in the world during the UPA tenure. There are lag effects in economics and the high growth during UPA-I was not merely because the global economy was strong but because Manmohan inherited a good legacy from Vajpayee. The roots of several of UPA-II’s problems were the result of the sins of profligacy committed during UPA-I. It is too easy to blame the lack of reform on the extraordinary influence of the Left in the first period and the National Advisory Council in the second. At least ‘the low hanging fruit’, as Raghuram Rajan puts it, could have been plucked, if there had been a will. In the past desperate year, P. Chidambaram has shown what could have been done. (But PC was finance minister in UPA-I, why did he not do it then?)
Baru would attribute this to the problem of two power centres. But Manmohan Singh was our great reformer and he understood the power of growth in his bones. How could he have allowed the government to take its eyes off the ball of growth? Why did he allow the momentum in infrastructure to slow down? Every country needs to protect its environment, but none stops hundreds of projects in the process. Was it due to the prime minister’s tragic flaw: he was too shy and preferred not to assert himself?
Manmohan must have remembered the important role of the PM’s principal secretary in getting things done. It was A.N. Varma who had helped him in 1991-1993 to execute the reforms when Narasimha Rao was prime minister. He had deftly used the mechanism of the famous Thursday meetings of a steering committee of secretaries to push for a new reform each week. Brajesh Mishra was an even more important anchor for Vajpayee. Both Verma and Mishra were risk-takers. Why did Manmohan accept T.K. Nair, who was risk-averse with leftist leanings to boot? According to Baru, such key appointments were thrust upon the PM by Sonia Gandhi and he had no choice. This was a critical factor in the PM’s failure. Instead of helping him, T.K. Nair added to the obstacles that the prime minister faced in implementing reforms, according to Sanjaya Baru.
There might have been a very different scenario. An assertive prime minister, for example, would have seen India’s 134th rank in World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ report as a call to action. He would have sought ways to eliminate the nearly 70 clearances (yes 70, according to the Planning Commission’s new manufacturing policy!) for starting a business, and fuse them into a ‘single window clearance’ as achieved by our competitor nations. Admittedly, the action in India is in the states, but a determined leader at the Centre, with control over purse-strings, can do wonders. Instead, our notorious red tape continues to create the impression that India is perhaps the most hostile country for doing honest business. Add to this our ‘inspector raj’, which continues to bring incessant misery to the small entrepreneur. The worst offenders are the central revenue departments: tax, excise and customs.
A final lesson from Baru’s book. We make the common mistake in overvaluing the importance of intelligence in our leaders when history has proven time and again that it is determination and attitude that matters more. We make the same mistake when it comes to recruiting business leaders. A candidate with high academic credentials impresses us unduly. By the time we realise our mistake, it is too late. The damage is done. In an individual’s case, it is only a personal failure. But when a prime minister falters, it is a national tragedy.
Gurcharan Das’s review of Sanjaya Baru’s controversial book recounting his tenure in the PMO (Modesty Is A Slow Killer, May 5) was astute. However, I feel history will be kinder to Manmohan Singh than the current crop of writers and ‘experts’ who are out to make a fast buck, or their supportive, pious reviewers.
The only way history will be kinder to the incumbent PM (he has redefined the acronym of PM to ‘puppet minister’) is through sarkari historians. Any honest historian will be scathing about someone who could not even assert himself on rebellious subordinates, who even had no idea of the humongous scams taking place right under his nose. He’ll be severely criticised for not resigning from the post.
D.L. Narayan, Visakhapatnam
Manmohan was no match for the wily politicians—no school in the world, certainly not lse or Oxford, could prepare him in dealing with the highly corrupt. He was jeered, insulted and passed over by his own party men. And Rahul heaped a final insult 12 hours before Manmohan was to meet Obama in Washington. Actually, he was expected to keep the PM’s chair warm till Rahul was mature enough to take over. The gains of upa-i were squandered during upa-ii due to no fault of Manmohan.
Ashok Kumar Ghai, Mumbai
I think Manmohan’s ‘tragic flaw’ was not his shy, self-effacing nature, but a very feudal, distorted sense of loyalty to a family. And he was chosen by the family because of that. In fact, the family in politics is making us an ‘elected monarchy’, and going further down that line would certainly undermine our democracy.
Arun Maheshwari, Bangalore
It is not modesty, but the gaining of position and power at the cost of self-respect that is the slow killer!
Pramod, Tucson, US
Sonia chose Manmohan precisely for two related reasons—incompetence and sycophancy. Events in the past few years have imbued these two qualities with a perverse and tragic potential for the nation.
Dinesh Kumar, Chandigarh
In the light of the governance lows plumbed during UPA-II, the 2014 Lok Sabha polls must go down as the worst ever in terms of the most number of criminals and crorepatis contesting elections. Plus, the level of political ‘debate’ proves conclusively that it’s also the dirtiest of all our general elections.
Mahesh Kumar, Delhi
Baru has an axe to grind against Sonia Gandhi. Had he been allowed to continue in the PMO, I wonder where his great ‘revelations’ would be. Having lost his game, he’s washing some dirty linen in public.
B. Vijaya Kumar, Hyderabad
The incumbent prime minister and the claimant to the post display exactly opposite traits. One has a perennially ‘passive’ voice, and the other a resoundingly ‘active’ one.
K. Suresh, Bangalore
The term journalist doesn’t really suit Sanjaya Baru. As a media advisor, he was a bit of a nuisance in the PMO. Something he has proven with his imaginative fiction.
A. Lino Samuel, Nagercoil
you will not find a more honest man in all of saffron parivar
>> He will come out a loser ....
He had his failures, but his accomplishments will be better seen when the present hysteria of Modimania blows over.
"History will be kinder to Manmohan Singh..."
That will happen if Upinder Singh happens to be the only one who will be writing history about Manmohan.
I agree with the robust economy inherited by UPA1 from NDA.
Regarding Coal Mines let us see what ex Coal Secretary says in His book Crusader or Conspirator because as per Coomi Kapoor in IE Manmohan even had lamented that he was never shown the List of Mines allocations.
@ AK Ghai - "Gains of UPA1 were squandered during UPA2 due no fault of Manmohan Singh"
@ AK Ghai - "Gains of UPA1 were squandered during UPA2 due no fault of Manmohan Singh"
Ghai saheb, I beg to differ. UPA 1 had inherited a very strong economy from the NDA. The UPA merely reaped the beenfits of the policies implemented by the previous regime.
In UPA-2, the chickens came home to roost. All the corruption and misdeeds of UPA-1 as well as well-intentioned but poorly structured programs of the NAC took their toll, leading to policy paralysis.
Manmohan Singh was at fault. He was the Coal Minister, too. Due to severe shortage of coal, the thermal power plants were running at less than 70% of their capacity. 30 % less power means 30 % less manufacturing and its spinoffs in the form of more unemployment, shortages leading to inflation, higher taxation due to reduction in revenue realisation and so on. His failure in tackling the coal chortage on a war footing is one of the main causes for a floundering economy. What he did was to give coal mines leases to cronies who did not invest a pie to extract coal. The allottees were just looking to make a killing by selling the leases to those for whom coal was important.
The UPA, in both avatars did precious little and MMS is definitely at fault. If he didn''t get his way, what stopped him from resigning in protest?
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