India's prime ministers: Hobbled by backers

Is political authority of India's prime ministers always compromised?

    India's prime ministers: Hobbled by backers
    Vajpayee's PMO looked no different from Manmohan's if one replaces 10 Janpath with RSS headquarters in Nagpur [EPA]

    Dr Manmohan Singh's daughter has accused the prime minister's former media advisor, Sanjaya Baru, of betraying her father's trust by giving details of how the Congress Party (read Sonia Gandhi) did not allow the PM to exercise his political authority.

    The PM's daughter, Upinder Singh, has also charged that Baru's book constitures a "mischievous and unethical exercise". She has also said Baru did not have any special access to the prime minister as claimed by him.

    It appears Upinder's strong statement is largely aimed at assuaging the feelings of the Congress President Sonia Gandhi whom the book indirectly blames for circumscribing the PM's authority.

    Probably, Singh's daughter may not have reacted so sharply, if the book had been released after the general elections. Narendra Modi is using Baru's book in his public meetings to suggest the UPA government was remote-controlled by Sonia Gandhi. 
    So the dispute is not so much on facts as on the timing of the release of the book. The PM's daughter says that Baru had indicated to her that the book would be released after the elections. She probably felt reassured after that. There is a philosophical question that arises here. Can timing of release really decide the ethicality or otherwise of what is said in a book? This is an important question. If truth is told today, it is unethical. But the same truth becomes ethical, if revealed after sometime! Is this because the event itself loses its significance with the passage of time?

    In the present case, the bigger picture was known even before the release of the book. Baru can pull out a hundred newspaper clippings broadly suggesting what he has said in his book. Of course, he has added more details which are being contested by the government. But the broader drift of Baru's arguments cannot be denied. Even the Congress Party may not have issued a statement, if the book was released after the elections, on May 10.
    The PM's daughter has probably been excessive in charging Baru with "unethical and mischievous" behaviour. She said Baru did not have a special access to PM, which he has claimed. Actually Baru had regular access to the PM. That Sanjay Baru had a special personal relationship with Manmohan Singh is borne out by the fact that the PM and his family invited him for a farewell meal when he left the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) for an academic assignment in Singapore. The PM does not have such intimacy with most officials. The PM, who clearly could not trust most people surrounding him, used Baru as his independent feedback mechanism on many matters.

    The PM's special relationship with his media advisor flowed from Manmohan Singh's long standing friendship with Sanjaya Baru's father, B P R Vithal - an IAS officer and former Principal Secretary, Finance and Planning Department in Andhra Pradesh.

    Actually, while Baru was officially just a media advisor, he acted as the PM's informal feedback mechanism on critical issues. The nuclear deal with the US was admittedly the biggest achievement of the PM. Baru was part of a small group of officials, including present Indian ambassador to the US, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who lobbied hard with multiple stakeholders to create a consensus in India and abroad.

    So Baru's book must be judged for its broader conclusions regarding the relationship between the PMO and the Congress Party led UPA I (United Progressive Alliance) and later UPA II, without going into the complex question of the ethicality of timing in which both sides can appear to have legitimate arguments.
    In fact, what Baru says about the PMO under the UPA is also true, to some extent, about the PMO under the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) regime. There is a bigger systemic question of government's interface with organisations whose members are not administered the oath of office by the president. During the NDA rule, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was beset with problems of similar nature.
    After all, the prime minister of India does not exist in a political vacuum. He works within the constraints placed by the political system. If Atal Bihari Vajpayee is tested on the same parameters that Baru uses for Manmohan Singh, the result perhaps would be not very different. Take just a few instances where Vajpayee's PMO looked no different from Manmohan's. All you have to do is replace 10 Janpath with RSS (Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) headquarters in Nagpur. 

    Vajpayee, immediately after taking charge as PM in 1999, chose Jaswant Singh as his finance minister. The cabinet list was finalised by the PM. But the RSS had deep antipathy to Jaswant and he was replaced by Yashwant Sinha.
    The PM's political authority was challenged on day one of his tenure. Vajpayee was also forced by BJP's alliance partner Shiv Sena to sack Cabinet Minister Suresh Prabhu, who was doing a good job and had gained in popularity. Prabhu's growing importance was not palatable to Bal Thakeray (now dead Shiv Sena founder). Vajpayee, as prime minister, could do nothing. Where was the PM's famed authority?
    More substantively, Vajpayee showed helplessness when he wanted Modi removed after the 2002 Gujarat riots and Advani, backed by RSS, ensured the move was nipped in the bud. That one wrong political decision was said to have cost the BJP the 2004 elections. The mistake happened because the political authority of the prime minister was compromised. The RSS, through Swadeshi Jagran Manch, dictated many economic policy matters under Vajpayee's NDA. It stopped the large scale privatisation of Public Sector Units (PSUs), including those of big oil companies. Arun Shourie, as minister for disinvestment, managed to push through privatisation of a few PSUs but was not allowed to go any further.
    The larger point being made is both Vajpayee and Manmohan had their authority circumscribed by the political system within which they operated. This larger systemic distortion needs to be debated and resolved. Baru's book is useful in this respect.

    M K Venu is Executive Editor at the Amar Ujala Publications Group and does a weekly program on RSTV, a public broadcasting channel. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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