The Accidental Prime Minister: All the Prime Minister’s men

By Radhika Ramaseshan

Good sense has prevailed over the Congress. Its leaders refused to bandy words with the BJP over the release of the hot button film, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, that the BJP unwrapped as a New Year gift to the country through a trailer posted on its Twitter handle and hoped the Congress-ruled states would demand a ban so that it could refresh memories of the Emergency and the ‘Kissa Kursi Ka’ chapter and pose as a champion of free expression.

The trailer depicted Manmohan Singh as craven and Sonia Gandhi as imperious. Those who watched the Manmohan-Sonia equation evolve through the UPA years believed it was more shaded than cast in black-and-white.

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The timing of the film’s release on January 11 may be as ‘accidental’ as the launch of the eponymous book in April 2014 when India was in the throes of a Lok Sabha election. The authorship by Sanjaya Baru, Manmohan’s media advisor from May 2004 to August 2008, heightened expectations of stunning revelations and the book was not a let-down.

When Baru’s book was launched, the BJP, then as now, seized upon it as dynamite to fuel its campaign against the duopoly that “failed” the nation. Upinder Singh, Manmohan’s eldest daughter and a historian and an academic, remarked on the timing, saying as an author, she was aware that writers can set up a time schedule.

The Constitution does not provide for a media advisor’s post, and, therefore, his role and mandate are subjective and circumstantial. By precedent, he is appointed by the prime minister or the President and holds office at their discretion. In an interview to Australian media outlet ‘The Conversation’ in 2011, Professor Anne Tiernan of the Griffith University was asked about the “influence” that media advisors commanded. Her reply was, “The simple answer is it depends: it depends on the minister and it depends on the staffer.”

Baru was absolutely Manmohan’s choice. He made no bones about where his loyalty lay: to his boss in South Block and not the Congress to which Manmohan owed his position. Baru started his innings on a contumacious note. He granted Manmohan’s first interview to Tarun Vijay, then the editor of the RSS weekly, ‘Panchajanya’. The Congress was aflutter and began a whisper campaign, casting aspersions on the media advisor’s political leaning.

Baru was unperturbed, confident he had the PM’s unqualified backing to weather the Congress’s whacks. When the Congress’s face-off with the Left entered a decisive phase over the conclusion of the Indo-US nuclear deal, Manmohan dared Prakash Karat with his memorable line in an interview: “If the Left wants to withdraw support, so be it.” Few imagined that the timorous PM could bluntly confront his largest ally.

Baru set up the interview that surprised the Congress. Insiders, principally those subscribing to a Left-of-Centre line, deduced that Sonia was not in the know and would not approve of Manmohan’s stance. In retrospect, despite Baru being a catalyst, Sonia and Manmohan were on the same page on the nuke deal. However, the former media advisor packaged and marketed the landmark deal as Manmohan’s exclusive enterprise, and entwined it with the slogan, “Singh is King”.

By the time the UPA returned to power, Baru was out of the Prime Minister’s Office. The second time around, the Congress chose his media advisor. He was editor Harish Khare, an authority on the party’s history and politics. The Congress brass believed that Khare, whose writings on the Congress and the Gandhis were laced with mordancy, would do its bidding.

How it misjudged him! In 2010, at a book launch in Delhi, Khare, who was a panelist, slipped back into his role as an analyst-critic, dissected the Congress threadbare and dubbed it as “essentially status-quoist” whose only conviction was to win elections.

The former media advisor argued that social change required a “larger frame of political respectability” and was not achievable in politics that held “cynicism, family nepotism and bogus factionalism” in esteem. To the Congress, if Baru was suspect, Khare was a disaster.

Sonia discreetly worked the levers through a PMO official close to the Gandhis. In January 2012, Pankaj Pachauri, a TV journalist, was appointed as a communications advisor to the PM but was directed to report to the official in question.

Khare saw Pachauri’s induction as an affront and quit. Pachauri’s tenure was marked by run-ins with journalists, the most storied altercation being the one he had with Simon Denyer, then the Washington Post’s South Asia bureau chief, over a piece on Manmohan.

From Manmohan’s standpoint, the only media advisor to serve him purposefully was not a journalist but Deepak Sandhu, a government apparatchik. Deepak filled in for Baru at the tail-end of UPA I. The highpoint of her brief stint was lifting the veil on Manmohan’s family in a TV programme that was a visual treat and a journalist’s feast. Manmohan’s wife, Gursharan Kaur and his daughters, Upinder and Daman (the third Amrit lives in the US) were dressed in shades of red to match the decor. The ensemble of a family at peace with itself was complete with the presence of Sandy, a pet dog. Asked about Manmohan being dubbed as a “weak” PM, Gursharan’s riposte was a line from an old Bollywood number.

“Kuch to log kahenge…”

Sanjaya, Harish, Pankaj, Deepak-…who in the quartet would qualify as Manmohan’s favourite?


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