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Did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh use Sanjay Baru's book to set record straight?

Sunday, 13 April 2014 - 10:00am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: dna

The Prime Minister's office has come down heavily on Sanjaya Baru's The Accidental Prime Minister, calling it a work of "fiction".

But Baru had sent Manmohan Singh the book a week ago and "did not get any feedback", as he admitted in a media interview on Friday.

Does the week-long silence indicate coming to a tacit agreement with Baru's depiction of events. Or is this Singh's way of setting the record straight on several issues that have blighted his record in UPA-II?
Singh knew that Baru was writing a book on his years as PM's media adviser — those close to him have told the media that he would have preferred the book to come out later, not while he was still in office.

Did the prime minister also know the book's contents, especially the explosive bits about exactly how much say Sonia Gandhi had in crucial government decisions?

Top bureaucrats in the PMO say this could be Singh's attempt to set the history straight before the blame game begins after the defeat of the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections.

Baru, of course, is mum. Telephone calls and requests for interviews from dna were denied and he did not respond to a query on whether he had heard from the prime minister himself since the book's release.

Baru's book is all along full of praise for the prime minister, pointing out that Singh faltered only when Sonia Gandhi and the Congress intervened in his decisions.

For instance, he writes, after the 2009 victory, "Dr Singh did try to be more assertive, taking a view on who would be in his cabinet and who would not, and resisting the induction of the DMK's A Raja and TR Baalu, for their unsavoury reputations... Dr Singh stood his ground for a day, managed to keep Baalu out, but had to yield ground on Raja under pressure from his own party. To me, it was a reiteration of the message that the victory was not his but the Family's."

On the allegations of corruption in allocation of coal blocks when Singh was coal minister, Baru writes: "He was charged, not with corruption, but with turning a blind eye to the corruption of others.Public opinion was no longer willing to excuse him for choosing not to claim and exercise the authority that was his due as prime minister. Watching this debacle unfold, I was convinced... that the prime minister's decision not to return to office via the Lok Sabha was his biggest political mistake... He could easily have said to Sonia that he would prefer to retire as PM than to once again return to the job from the Rajya Sabha. If she had refused him a safe Lok Sabha seat he could have gone into retirement on health grounds."

Baru was very close to Singh, as he goes to some lengths to establish this in the book. He also emphasises that his loyalty in all the machinations of party and government lay with the prime minister and not with the Congress or its leadership.

Baru had been one of the first to suggest Manmohan Singh's name as prime minister, he tells readers, back in May 25, 1999 in a column in The Times of India. He reiterated the suggestion again in an editorial in The Financial Express, of which he was the chief editor in May 2004, after it became clear that the Congress would form the government.

Then there were the social connections. Baru's father, BPR Vithal, had been finance and planning secretary of Andhra Pradesh when Singh was secretary in the finance ministry in Delhi and knew Singh well, as did his father-in-law.

Economist KN Raj, who invited Singh to join the Delhi School of Economics, was Baru's teacher. Baru also admits that Singh facilitated his joining the Research and Information System for Non-aligned and Other Developing Countries, a think-tank, of which Singh was chairman, and later the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. He also campaigned for Singh the one time he contested a Lok Sabha election, distributing pamphlets door-to-door with his daughter.

In fact, on a visit Baru paid to PV Narasimha Rao, Singh's political mentor, soon after he became media adviser, he quotes the Congress leader saying, "Of course, he knows Vithal", to explain why Singh chose him.

Not only did Singh hand-pick him as his media adviser, he also seems to have shielded him in his interactions with the political leadership and senior bureaucrats, giving in to his demand for the rank of secretary. He enjoyed unfettered access to Singh, and also came to play the roles of "referee" and "confidant" to the PM.

Singh, writes Baru, had wanted him to join his government after the 2009 victory but machinations by Gandhi-family loyalists in the Congress that "defanged" him in his second term, put paid to that.

Is Baru's book an attempt to redeem Singh's reputation?

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