Unfair to compare Manmohan with Vajpayee, at best it could be with Gujral

Digvijaya Singh says that Manmohan Singh is an underrated politician, even if he was not sure if the latter was an overrated economist.


The narrative of this book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh bears out both parts of Digvijay Singh’s statement very substantially. However, the reader has to wait till the last part of this eminently readable book of Baru to say so, as otherwise it makes a superhuman effort to portray Manmohan Singh in good light. Baru had left PMO in 2008 and was teaching in Singapore when after the surprise re-election of UPA in the 2009 general elections. Manmohan Singh asked him to come back and re-join him in PMO. So Baru quit his job and came back but there was no job for him initially before being belatedly offered a sinecure that he refused.


Baru feels that it was the pressure from the party, read 10 Janpath that prevented Manmohan Singh from even filling up posts in his personal office. What could be the cause for such objection from 10? That Baru in his earlier avatar had tried to build the image of his boss as an effective prime minister, giving him credit where due and resisting efforts of the coterie around 10 to grab all credit for Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.


Since Baru was not physically present in the PMO, he does not go into the details of different scams like Raja's perfidy, one would have to read former coal secretary P C Parakh's book (Crusader or Conspirator: Coalgate and Other Truths) to realise how even political pariahs like Shibu Soren the on-off coal minister and lightweights like minister of state Dasari Narayana Rao could not just resist eminently sensible orders passed by the prime minister officiating as the coal minister but stall their implementation.


Baru does justify Manmohan Singh's limitations to running a coalition government or by virtue of being an accidental prime minister and compares it to Vajpayee's inability to induct Jaswant Singh in his government in 1998, and to Govindacharya referring to Vajpayee as a ‘mukhota’ (mask). But the fact is that Jaswant Singh, like Pramod Mahajan, has lost the 1998 polls and both were not inducted as ministers. And soon Vajpayee had in way by not only making Jaswant Singh a minister, but later as finance minister, the very job that was denied to him in March 1998.


And the clinical manner by which Vajpayee handled the Govindacharya controversy that the powerful BJP party general secretary deputed by the RSS to the party disappeared from public view, being rarely heard off since. The dropping of Suresh Prabhu from NDA government did reveal the limitations of a Prime Minister in a coalition government, whose dharma allows individual partners to nominate their ministerial candidates. But while Vajpayee had one Suresh Prabhu case, Baru informs that Manmohan Singh was not even consulted by Sonia Gandhi when in 2009 she decided that Pranab Mukherjee would be finance minister and AK Antony would be Raksha Mantri in UPA II. In this Manmohan Singh should be seen on par with another accidental prime minister, the late IK Gujral. Deve Gowda had far more latitude and was no pushover who could be bullied by either his party president Lalu Yadav or by his coalition partners and supporting parties like Congress or CPM.


Baru is wrong that it was the nuclear test that strengthened Vajpayee' position vis-à-vis the party or the RSS, allowing him the space required to be an effective PM. And that Manmohan Singh had earned similar opportunity by pushing through the nuclear deal with the US and then leading the UPA (and the Congress party) to its 2009 electoral triumph. But that he refused to encash this, preferring to let Sonia Gandhi and increasingly Rahul Gandhi to ride rough shod over him.


Vajpayee was not just a one-off vote getter for the BJP, accepting the contention that the 2009 victory was largely Manmohan Singh's, but the main architect of BJP's rise to power in 1998, successfully overcoming the limitations of 1996 when the BJP could emerge as the largest party in the Lok Sabha but could not fashion an alliance wide enough to obtain the numbers required. His support base was wider than his party’s and not even his most ardent supporter can stake anything remotely similar for Manmohan Singh.


The book does throw up interesting insights into how bureaucratic inertia can prevent the political executive from developing bold policy initiatives and how Manmohan Singh tried to overcome this by using others to push bold ideas in meetings, preferring to remain silent himself. Manmohan Singh maybe an innate introvert but silence cannot be a default option for a leader of a government, who should be able to provide clear directions on the way forward, even as specifics can be left to underlings.


The only example of such leadership that we have seen in the last ten years has been in the handling of the nuclear deal with the US. Baru bring this out in great detail, with President George Bush reputation's further burnished. Manmohan Singh also comes out in very good light as a person with clear vision and political suaveness, ready to sell the agreement as needed for India’s energy security strengthening Digvijay Singh's observation.


This aside, despite Baru's best attempts to make Manmohan Singh generally look good especially in his stewardship of UPA I, he comes a cropper. This is because as Parakh so succinctly says that by 'continuing to head a government in which he had little political authority, his image has been seriously dented by 2G and Coalgate although he has had a spotless record of personal integrity.' The end result is a much diminished Manmohan Singh, which can be a personal tragedy, and much diminished political executive whose weakness had led to weakening of economic performance, hurting the poor who hoped to ride on the surf of growth.


(A former IAS officer, Sinha was secretary to Prime Minister AB Vajpayee)

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