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  Accidental Advisor  
  The Unmaking of Sanjaya Baru  
   
  ONE of my colleagues at 'The Tribune' had nearly wagered with me that his former boss Hari Jaisingh would be Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Media Advisor. I was sure that Sanjaya Baru had better chances than him because he was younger, his father was in the IAS and had reportedly worked with the Prime Minister.

I also had my own sources with links to the Prime Minister's Office to keep me posted about the developments at that time. I knew a little before news agencies flashed reports about Manmohan Singh's choice that it was indeed Baru. My colleague was a little shocked as he was certain that Jaisingh would pip him to the post.

I first met Baru when Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta introduced him to me soon after he joined as editor of the Financial Express. A few months later when I left the Indian Express where I was in charge of the editorial page, it was to Baru that Gupta had given the additional charge of the editorial page.

The additional charge did not entail any additional work for Baru as Pamela Philipose shouldered the responsibility of looking after the page. I never had any chance to interact with him except when I accompanied the Prime Minister to Mauritius.

One evening, some of us in the Press party accompanying the PM went to the beach at Port Louis where the All India Radio representative asked me to do an impromptu "Spotlight" on the PM's visit. Baru, Seema Mustafa and I sat together and discussed the significance of the visit. The sound of the sea waves provided the backdrop for the discussion. It was my maiden radio programme which, I learnt, was broadcast only when I was sent the payment.

I always wondered why many Indian journalists considered a job in the government or a membership in Parliament more important than the job they held. The saddest part of the story is that they did everything possible to get such jobs. I had great respect for B.G. Varghese because he had given up his job as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Press Secretary to become editor of the 'Hindustan Times'. Decades later, he surprised me when he accepted an assignment from then Defence Minister George Fernandes.

Why is it that journalists are not happy with their jobs and want such assignments? I have read 'Front Row At The White House', the fascinating autobiographical work of Helen Thomas, who died recently. She had reported on every US President from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton for the United Press International. She was on first name-terms with every President but she did not use the connections to get a "sarkari" job.

Benjamin C. Bradlee and the late Walter Cronkite are two American journalists I respect. They were the most influential newsmen in the US but they never hankered after a government job. Instead, they tried to excel in their own chosen field. A government job has its own attractions. Take the case of Sanjaya Baru. He had once visited the office of H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who was Press Secretary to Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

Later, Baru occupied the same office room which was "four times larger than the editor's room in the various newspaper offices in which I had worked". When I read this I realised that for some real estate is more important than the Fourth Estate.

Baru has dedicated his book, 'The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh', to Prasad and K. Subrahmanyam, whom he describes as his "mentors". Little did he realise that part of Prasad's charm was that he did not write a book on the prime ministers he worked with. His column in the 'Asian Age', which I read regularly, was proof that he could have written an excellent memoir. Perhaps, he felt that he could not have written such a book without exposing some aspects of the people he worked with.

Baru in his book pays compliments to one Murali, a personal assistant to the Prime Minister, whom he "inherited from his previous boss the Kerala MP MM Jacob". As Baru says, "Murali never misused his access and extended unquestioned loyalty to Dr Singh". Needless to say, such a person is not expected to betray his trust. It is said that former Congress President S. Nijalingappa had a driver, who was privy to all the goings-on in the party, when the Congress split. He used to pass on information to Indira Gandhi's camp, which enabled her to be one up on Nijalingappa. Nobody respects such persons.

In the book Baru turns to the Mahabharata either to recall Yeshwant Sinha calling Manmohan Singh a Shikhandi or to compare him to Bheeshma, who could not prevent the disrobing of Draupadi. In the Ramayana there is a character called Vibhishana, brother of Ravan, who becomes King of Lanka after betraying his brother. Even Ravan is revered by some but not Vibhishana, a betrayer of trust.

No, it is not my point that Baru should not have written the book. Nobody would find fault with a journalist for writing a book but it should not amount to an embarrassment for the Prime Minister. Views can only be subjective and, therefore, there cannot be an objective viewpoint. MO Mathai was an efficient stenographer whom Nehru trusted so much that he even allowed him to stay at his official residence.

He wrote two books, projecting himself. One of his nephews is my friend and he uses the worst epithets when he refers to his uncle. He believes that he caused disgrace to not only their family but also to the entire Malayali community, which has contributed personal secretaries to some of India's great men and women. I have read the autobiography of Kuldip Nayar who served Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. No, he did not project himself greater than Shastri.

Take the way he treats TKA Nair, who was Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister at that time. "Always impeccably attired, Nair, small-built and short, lacked the presence of a Brajesh Mishra, whose striking demeanour commanded attention". He attributes his appointment to the backing of a friend of Manmohan Singh's family, Rashpal Malhotra, whom I know personally. This is mean, to say the least.

"Apart from his stint in the Gujral PMO, Nair had neither held the rank of secretary in any of the powerful ministries on Raisina Hill -- home, finance and defence -- nor in any key economic ministry. He had only done so in the less powerful ministries of rural development and environment and forests. In short, he was a bureaucratic lightweight".

If anything, this shows Baru's class bias. How can someone say that rural development is less important than defence when a majority of the people live in rural areas? Baru would not have been happy if someone had described him as a former editor of the 'Financial Express' whose paid circulation was in three digits. Incidentally, Brajesh Mishra, whom he praises to the skies, was not even considered fit to become Foreign Secretary.

Baru claims that it was NN Vohra, who told him first about his selection for the post of Media Advisor. The book says that he got a call from Nair pronouncing his name as "Sanjay" not "Sanjaya" telling him that the Prime Minister wanted to meet him. Of course, Nair knew what for the PM wanted to meet him. The good IAS officer that he was, he did not want to jump the gun. He wanted the PM to have the pleasure of informing Baru about his selection.

He does not give any credit to Nair's decency and, instead, praises Vohra, who tells him later in the evening that the Prime Minister had sought his advice and he recommended his name. While he laments non-selection of Vohra, he nowhere mentions that he was appointed Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, a no less important job.

For all his brilliance in academics and journalism, Baru is a reductionist par excellence. He tries to explain everything in terms of relationships. The PM's problems with the Left arose because Harkishan Singh Surjeet, "who hailed from Punjab", was no longer the decision-maker in the CPM. He praises "the magisterial Brajesh Mishra" for risk-taking. "He established that reputation by taking the decision, along with Vajpayee, to conduct nuclear tests in May 1998 and declare India a nuclear weapons state".

Baru forgets that a few days later, Pakistan also conducted nuclear tests and, thereby, established parity with India. What's worse, Mishra wrote a cringing letter to the US President virtually apologising for the nuclear test. God knows what advantage India got by those tests!

One of the basic flaws that I notice in the book is that Baru sees the Prime Minister as the equivalent of the US President with lot of executive powers. Baru would have done well to read his former boss Shekhar Gupta's column in which he had argued that a chief minister had more powers than the Prime Minister, who is at best the first among equals. I do not know whether Gupta has included this column in his unintelligibly titled anthology 'Anticipating India' that has just come out.

Baru devotes pages after pages to describe the arrangements he made for the Prime Minister's first Press Conference at Vigyan Bhavan. In the process, he exposes Singh as no better than a puppet in his hands. Details like how much time he spent rehearsing do not, unfortunately, show him in a good light. He may think he had done a great job when he kept only one chair for the Prime Minister on the dais. Even the Minister for I&B had to sit in the front row.

I have myself seen Baru standing behind the PM and holding the PM's chair for the whole world to see, while he addressed the media on board "Air India One". But he finds fault with Foreign Minister Natwar Singh demanding that he sit with the PM when he meets the media. Fortunately, Singh had no such pretensions.

He calls the PM "spineless" when he is unable to take him back into service after his sabbatical in Singapore. Having worked with him for four years, he should have known about his "spinelessness" and not sought a re-employment. Baru gives the impression that if he were taken back into service, Singh would have ended up as a greater PM.

It is a pity that he has no word of praise for Sonia Gandhi who appointed Singh. In fact, he takes pride in the fact that he never met her during his tenure. It is the same Baru, who drags a Union minister to meet Shekhar Gupta, though the minister is reluctant to meet him. What's worse, he ridicules the minister for his false sense of prestige when he himself boasts that he never met Sonia Gandhi. For a journalist, nobody should be anathema.

Some of Baru's statements -- who among the ministers Manmohan Singh liked or disliked -- are unbelievable because he did not have access to information. Baru never attended any of the Cabinet meetings, nor was he privy to classified information. Yet, he has written about the "deal on Siachen" to show AK Antony in a poor light. He is dismissive of Antony while he praises an officer in the PMO, who trusted his astrological skills better than his administrative acumen.

I personally believe that Manmohan Singh should have contested elections soon after he became Prime Minister. He could have won from any constituency in India. The Shiromani Akali Dal would not have even been able to put up a candidate against him if he contested from Amritsar. I was in Chandigarh those days and I knew his popularity. Once Sukhbir Badal visited my house on Diwali and we discussed nothing but Manmohan Singh's popularity. He admitted that he was invincible in Punjab for about a year after he became PM.

Manmohan Singh made the mistake of cooking up a fake address in Assam to reach the Rajya Sabha. That was a compromise on principles for which he had to pay a price. All said and done, Manmohan Singh will go down in history as one of the best prime ministers we had. Politics is the art of the possible. Greater prime ministers like Winston Churchill, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher all had to eat humble pie. That is in the nature of politics.

Let me confess, I would not have wasted my money on Baru's book but for its timing. It gave material for Narendra Modi to pounce on Manmohan Singh. Now even he has stopped quoting the book. Just yesterday, I spent some time at a bookshop in Connaught Place where Baru's book was prominently displayed. I saw visitors buying all kinds of books but not one of them touched 'The Accidental Prime Minister'. Baru says he had written the book to defend Singh. How truly it is said that when you have friends like Baru you don't need enemies!

The writer can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com

Courtesy: Indian Currents
 
  By  A.J. Philip  
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