The Accidental Prime Minister (The Making and Unmaking of Mohan Singh) by Sanjaya Baru, Viking Books: New York, 2014, ISBN 978-0-670086740, 287 pp., $28.88 (Hardcover), $12.72 (Kindle).
This is my second book review covering the period I spent working in the Political Section of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. The first book was Packing for India by Ambassador David Mulford, reviewed in the March issue of this journal. The two books provide a stark contrast. Mulford’s book represents the views of American policy makers and the unique political culture of the United States. Baru’s book provides valuable insight into India’s political culture.
I heartily recommend The Accidental Prime Minister because it provides an inside look at how Indian politics functions. It is a valuable tool for Americans who come to India carrying too much cultural baggage. Americans have become accustomed to dealing in a highly polarized political environment. This is exacerbated by the U.S presidential system, dominated by two political parties. Although the Democrats are often characterized in American media as a leftist party, it is by international standards a mildly liberal party. The Republicans, who once practically mirrored the Democrats, but were center-right, have now drifted a bit further to the right. Americans often carry these domestic political attitudes with them when they try to understand and analyze political developments in other countries.
For the American reader, The Accidental Prime Minister is an education in a totally different political setup. The Indian system is parliamentary. The Prime Minister comes to power by demonstrating to the President that he/she has the support of a majority of the Members of the lower house of Parliament (the Lok Sabha). The Prime Minister can fall from power at any time. As soon as the opposition demonstrates that the Prime Minister no longer enjoys majority support, his/her term comes to an end. In addition, India is a multiparty republic. A large number of political parties from across the political spectrum, contest for votes. India is an extremely heterogeneous country with an enormous variety of ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. Indian states are linguistic groupings. Many of India’s political parties are strictly regional or caste based. They often have no other agenda but to benefit the particular ethnic or caste group they represent.
In the Indian political system, governments are often coalitions of disparate parties brought together solely to create a parliamentary majority. Some participants back the government in power to gain power, perks, prestige or money and are uninterested in ideological conformity. In this environment political loyalties are often temporary, with political parties “crossing the floor” to bring down coalition governments and create new ones.
This is the political environment Baru artfully describes in his book. Indian politicians cannot afford to be polarized. They learn early on to be flexible and to compromise. The political process is one of constant negotiation between individuals, parties and factions.
Americans increasingly think in terms of black and white, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. Thus when an American starts looking at India, he/she wants to divide the country into two warring camps, and find out which is the “good” party and which is the “bad” party. This approach was evident in Ambassador Mulford’s book Packing for India. Mulford identified the BJP as the party that represented economic “progress,” in that it claimed to back economic liberalization and the neo-liberal agenda and to be pro-American. He contrasted this with the Congress Party, which was suspect because of its socialistic heritage and skepticism regarding neo-liberalism. Baru demonstrates that life in India my not be that simple.
Baru is a journalist by profession and a talented writer. He has a refreshing style. He does not engage in hyperbole, but rather is dispassionate and coolly analytical. He provides lots of information without getting mired in specifics.
I generally avoid political memoirs. The authors want to convince the reader they are powerful inside players. They try to overwhelm with inside stories of intimate access to the rich, famous, and powerful. In most political memoirs the author is always at the center stage of crucial events and is convinced that he/she played a crucial role in world history and had a profound influence on the outcome of world events.
This book was quite refreshing because Baru did not fall to these depths. He served as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Media Advisor throughout most of his first term in office (2004-2009). Baru was not a close friend of Singh’s when he was selected, but grew close to the Prime Minister as the two men worked closely together. Over time, Manmohan Singh came to rely on Baru for more than media management. Baru was frank and forthcoming with his advice on a wide variety of subjects. Singh listened patiently to the advice but often did not follow it.
Manmohan Singh came to power in the 2004 election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had served a full term in office with the popular Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister. The Indian economy was doing well. The BJP declared “India Shining” and was confident of victory. The Indian electorate proved the pundits wrong. The BJP lost the election. When the votes were counted, the Congress Party had the largest number of MPs, but not an absolute majority. For the first time in its history the Congress Party was forced to cobble together a coalition government.
Congress is a left of center party. In European parlance it would be called a Social Democratic Party. It is populist and believes that the government should play a strong role in the economy. It is also socialist, not averse to public sector enterprises and a planned economy. The left wing of the Congress overlaps with the “Left Parties.” This is a group of Communist and radical left parties with a Marxist orientation. During the Cold War, these parties allied with the Soviet Union or the PRC, but have over time morphed into another version of Social Democratic parties and have successfully ruled Indian states. The Left parties are committed to democracy and honor the electoral outcome, even when it goes against them.
To form the government, Congress had to rely on Left Party support. The Left decided to support “from outside,” meaning they declined formal membership in the coalition. Left MPs therefore were not eligible to occupy cabinet positions. This set-up gave the Left considerable power over decision-making. The Left could threaten to withdraw support and bring down the government if it did not get what it wanted.
The Congress Party is a family fiefdom. It belongs to the Gandhi family. Whenever Congress was in power, a member of the Gandhi family served as Prime Minister. However, in 2004 there was no viable candidate from the family to take over. Sonia Gandhi, the widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, served as the family placeholder as the President of the Party. Her son Rahul Gandhi was the designated heir apparent, but not yet ready to serve. Sonia determined that she could not herself serve as Prime Minister. She was convinced that the Indian population would not accept a naturalized Indian of Italian decent and Roman Catholic faith as Prime Minister. In a dramatic move, Sonia addressed Parliament and turned down the honor, saying that she had searched her conscience and determined it best for the nation. She named Manmohan Singh to the post. Singh was not a politician. He had only contested one election in his life, when he ran for Parliament from a Delhi constituency and was defeated. He was a member of India’s upper house (the Rajya Sabha) an appointed position.
Manmohan Singh is a mild-mannered economist, with a Ph.D. in Economics from Oxford. As Finance Minister in 1991, he started India’s economic liberalization process in response to a balance of payments crisis. Baru provides a nuanced portrait of Singh. While the Left characterized the Prime Minister as a “neo-liberal,” he was to the left of most American political leaders when it came to economic policy. He was not a neo-liberal absolutist. He did not believe in totally dismantling India’s public sector, removing all “trade barriers,” rendering the labor movement powerless, or any of the other policies advocated by many Americans. Baru makes it clear that Singh enjoyed a friendly relationship with politicians from the Left and shared some of their views. He was a populist. He believed government should play a crucial role in poverty alleviation. During his first term, the Indian economy was going well. This provided funds to launch a series of populist programs aimed at poverty alleviation. Unlike neo-liberal critics, Baru does not decry such programs as simple giveaways and a waste of money. He asserts that they accomplished many of their goals, but needed to be better managed, and curtailed when the funding dried up.
Manmohan Singh tried to occupy a middle position. His first and foremost loyalty was to India. He was a true patriot. He believed it was in India’s best interest to liberalize its economy and cultivate closer ties to the United States. This did not mean, however, that he wanted to abandon all the socialist elements of the Indian system and adopt American economic thinking in Toto. Singh’s Left allies were suspicious of economic liberalization and of the United States. Singh had to bring them along. He relied on persuasion and compromise and cultivated a group of Leftists who backed his agenda.
The crucial factor that caused the Left and Singh to part company was the “nuclear deal.” This was the proposal put forward by the Bush Administration to recognize India’s status as a nuclear weapons state without India signing the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Baru shared Singh’s commitment to this deal. His chapter in which he describes the nuclear deal is artfully written. It is one of the best descriptions I have seen of a complex agreement that is very controversial. This chapter alone makes the book worth reading.
While Singh was able to bring the Left along when it came to his economic liberalization proposals, the nuclear deal proved to be a bridge too far. The Left could not support the deal and split with the Congress-led government over this issue. Baru is highly critical of the Left’s actions and continues to defend the deal, while conceding that it did not deliver many of the promised benefits.
Although Baru left the government towards the end of Singh’s first term, he describes how the UPA unraveled during its second term and set the stage for the BJP’s triumphant return to power. While Baru is a strong admirer of Manmohan Singh, he lays the blame for these developments squarely on the Prime Minister. Time and again, asserts Baru, Manmohan Singh did not assert himself. He was the Prime Minister, but constantly deferred to Sonia Gandhi and the Gandhi family. While personally incorruptible, Singh overlooked corrupt behavior in others. By the end, Manmohan Singh became an object of ridicule in the Indian media. The Gandhi family was bent on making Rahul Gandhi the next Prime Minister and did not back Singh. Although an economist, Singh failed to artfully manage the economy and budgetary process. Singh continued populist programs after their funding dried up. The impact of the great recession and ever-growing outlays to import energy slowed economic growth and increased inflation, and the Prime Minister did not have an adequate response.
By the end, the stage was fully set for the return of the BJP. The Indian electorate was fed up with corruption and economic mismanagement. To win an absolute majority in the 2014 election, the BJP merely had to play a one-note song. Narendra Modi cleverly put aside his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda and emphasized economics. He promised to straighten out the economic mess and won an absolute majority in the 2014 election.
Baru ends on a sad note. He points out that Manmohan Singh could have saved his legacy by resigning. He could have gone to the Gandhi family and said he would not tolerate corrupt ministers in his cabinet, especially when they were not selected by him but were foisted on him by the Party. He could have demanded freedom to act without interference. He could have used these points to justify his resignation and keep his reputation intact. Baru points out that had Manmohan Singh done so, he would now be playing the role of a distinguished former statesman. Instead, he occupies a space in historic limbo.