How close is the PM's media adviser to the PM? Apparently, a lot. The jury may still be out on whether The Accidental Prime Minister — former media adviser Sanjaya Baru's memoirs of his tenure in UPA1 — is a work of fiction or fact. But it certainly gives us an idea of the easy access the spin doctors enjoy to the highest office in the country.
"It is generally the PM's prerogative to choose his media adviser. So, naturally, media advisers are people very close to the PM. Sometimes they may know things that even the PM's cabinet ministers do not know," says Ashok Tandon, former press adviser to NDA's Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Tandon in his tenure handled some crucial crisis situations for the NDA like the Kargil war, the Kandahar hijacking and the Gujarat riots.
While a press adviser is never part of cabinet meetings, he is kept in the loop of all major decisions. Easy access to the PM's office means he is usually privy to key information on the motive and background of most governance decisions. "You are part and parcel of the system so you need to be abreast with issues to communicate effectively to the press," says Tandon, adding the position also allows you key insights into the kind of relationship the PM shares with his ministers and senior leaders.
HK Dua, senior journalist and former press adviser to Deve Gowda and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, says, "The degree of confidence depends on the personalities involved." Dua, as a journalist, had been a staunch critic of the Ram Mandir movement and the Babri Masjid demolition. In his own words, he was never part of the "BJP set-up" and had been severely critical of the party.
Yet, he says, he enjoyed complete faith of the PM. "So many things happened in my presence and I was privy to a lot conversations that people do not know about," he says.
Speaking on Baru's book, Dua feels he could have waited for the elections to get over to publish the book. "The book comes too early when all the key actors in the drama are still in the scene. I would have waited," he says. Dua also emphasises that confidence of the PM must be maintained even in memoirs.
Tandon, who was known to be extremely close to Vajpayee, says this is not the first media adviser to write a book and neither will be the last, so Baru is well within his rights to write a book.
For BG Verghese, former journalist and information adviser to PM Indira Gandhi, the ethics of leveraging one's professional position lies at one's own discretion. "You may have worked with the government, with a corporation or in the media, and may have been privy to professional secrets. Baru chose to write in contemporary times, which magnifies its context. Prima facie, it is an unethical approach. But, I cannot comment in direct terms because I have not read the book yet," says Verghese.
However, Verghese does not feel Baru's book is an attempt to cash in on his former position of power, or that he intends to malign the PM. "Baru shared a good relationship with the PM, and I don't think that Baru disrespects him. Singh, or Rahul or Sonia Gandhi, for that matter, have been at the receiving end of far more scathing criticism from newspapers and magazines. What Baru has done is what an intelligent journalist would have done; he is an old hat projecting old stuff."
Meanwhile, Sanjaya Baru's book has given BJP the fuel to target the UPA government in the midst of elections and left the Congress infuriated, accusing the former media advisor to the prime minister of having political motives.
While the Congress dubbed the book as a "work of fiction and gossip", finance minister P Chidambaram dismissed Baru's claim that Sonia Gandhi was running the government. However, the BJP has cashed in on the contents of the book to fire five questions to corner Congress, particularly its president, questioning her role and that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in running the government.
Chidambaram denied that the Prime Minister went to 10 Janpath for clearance of files. "We are in a party democracy. There are decisions and decisions. Some decisions can be taken within the government.
Some have to be taken only after consultation with the party. This is political party government. If it is a political decision which requires political consultation, well, I myself have taken it to the (Congress) Core Group," Chidambaram said, asserting there was nothing wrong in it.