Column: Singh, Congress commit hara-kiri

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Updated: May 8 2014, 02:28am hrs
Two important questions arise with the publication of The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh. The first question relates to the timing of the publication; the second relates to the subtitle of the bookwhy did Manmohan Singh not resign before he was unmade

The author, Sanjaya Baru, was Manmohan Singhs media adviser for four years (2004-08), and as such was privy to confidences that the PM had shared with him. So, should a media adviser publish an account of his experiences, and especially so in the middle of a contentious, albeit historical, election season The timing issue is a non-starterif okay to publish later, then why not okay to publish now My own view is that Baru has done nothing wrong, morally or politically or as a friend of Manmohan. Publication of books like Barus are routine in most parts of the democratic world, and it is hoped that this book will set both a precedent, and a trend, in India. I have long maintained that politicians ignore the new world order at their peril; there is literally no place to hide, so dont even try. Barus spirited and excellent rendition of what happened in the government between 2004 and 2008 is not necessarily original; many (including myself) have, over the last several years, commented upon the unmaking of Manmohan.

However, we could go on conjecturing and speculating about what happened, but such documentation would not be accepted as the truth. Therein lies the importance of Barus Accidental Prime Ministerhis on-the-spot account verifies these interpretations. Of course, Baru might be lying and/or is prejudiced, as Congress insiders (read apologists for the dynastic throne) claim. But if the Congress is defeated and disgraced on May 16, there will be many more believers in Barus ankhon dekha haal.

The worth of Barus immensely readable and well written book is that it has several rings of truth, and it rings in several bells of authenticity. Further, even when many of the facts are known (e.g. how and what happened in the lead up to and signing of the nuclear deal), Baru manages to write it like a suspense novel. The book is also very, very complimentary to Manmohan Singhs role, and very, very sympathetic to him; Baru is unabashed in his admiration of Singh the person, Singh the politician, Singh the economist, and ultimately, Singh the human being. But the book makes a serious attempt to chronicle, and explain, the political downfall of this flawed leader. Despite the ongoing controversy, led by the Congress, on how the book is bad for Manmohan Singhs image, the opposite is most likely to be true. This is one of those no-place-to-hide instanceshistory will prove Baru right and this book might be the most positive of any that will be published on Manmohan Singhs 10-year tenure as Indias PM.

The essence of Barus book is the answer to the following question: how will Singh be remembered And if remembered not very kindly, why is that so, and especially why when in 2009, one year after the signing of the nuclear deal, 8.5%-plus growth in the preceding five years, and just after Congresss biggest election victory since 1991, Singh was rightfully king Where and how did Singh go wrong

He went wrong because he had sinned in the eyes of Sonia Gandhis Congress; and in this sinful behaviour, Baru was a willing associate and a leading strategist. The sin was for Singh to believe that it was his stewardship of the economy that helped the Congress chalk up 206 seats in 2009. As a contrast, Rajiv Gandhi was able to muster only 197 seats in 1989. There is plenty of evidence, and cited by Baru as well, that the people of India voted for Congress and Sardarji, a person who was a nek aadmi (a good man). Whatever happened to Sonias leadership, Rahuls youth and Priyankas charm in 2009 When the people of India voted for Singh (as voters in this election are voting for Modi and not necessarily the BJP), Sonias backroom boys exclaimedIski yeh aukat The short-sightedness (shall we say stupidity) of the dynasty apologists to deny Singh his due may in fact be responsible for the Congress having successfully axed its feet, and just in time for the 2014 election. How legless the Congress is will only be confirmed on May 16.

When Manmohan Singh first accepted the nomination as PM in 2004, implicit in his contract was the understanding with Sonia that he would be in charge of running the government, and she would be in charge of running the Congress party. This was the much vaunted CEO-Chairman model, explicitly and implicitly enunciated by both Sonia and Singh. As widely noted, Singh had held every conceivable job in the economic establishment in India, and from all accounts, had been given a free hand by PM Narasimha Rao to run the economy, and implement economic reforms, as he saw fit. So it was natural for Singh to believe in Sonias assurances that he would be master of his own successes and failures.

Alas, almost from day one in May 2004, the writing was on the wall. As studiously documented by Baru, Singh wasnt able to appoint his own Cabinet, including the Finance Minister. Even for the 2004 appointment of the renegade (in Chairman Sonias eyes) and Singhs trusted aide and confidant, Baru, a price had to be paid. When the PM wanted him back in 2009, he was not allowed to do so. Think about the magnitude of Sonias control over Manmohan he could not even re-appoint his own media adviser.

Manmohan Singh was taunted, insulted, forced to sign off on corruption and implement economic policies he did not believe ingiven all of this, why did he just not resign As in the 1976 movie Network, why didnt he scream Im as mad as hell, and Im not going to take this anymore! Barus book is an attempt to answer this questionhis answer, when the horse you are riding becomes a tiger, it is difficult to dismount. A parallel explanation is that Manmohan Singh believed aprs moi, le dluge, i.e., that if he were not the PM, the country would be considerably worse off. I have no doubt in my mind that Manmohan Singh was right in this assessment; how would India have fared with possible replacements like Arjun Singh, or Antony, or retrospective tax Pranab Mukherjee

History suggests that Sonia and the Congress must pay for their many sins of commission; must pay for not only possessing, but implementing, an outdated in-the-name-of-the-poor mindset. This is the mindset that proposes an employment guarantee programme in the biggest growth boom in Indias history; the same mindset that introduces the retrospective tax legislation at a time of Indias greatest need for foreign capital; the same mindset that tries to win over farmers by generating the highest inflation in Indias history. And a mindset that exploits the loyalty of ultimately the most transparent loyalist.

Accidental Prime Minister is essential reading for anyone interested in political history and anyone interested in interpreting the 2014 election. Read it before the counting day, and on May 16, when (if the opinion polls and the satta market is correct) the Congress party goes down in flaming defeat, think about how the Congress could go from hero to zero in such a short period of time, and faster than a BMW comes to a halt. Some of the important answers are in Sanjaya Barus excellent must-read book.

The author is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company. Twitter: @surjitbhalla