In writing his book “The Accidental Prime Minister,” Sanjaya Baru, the former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was trying to defend his former boss, who he said was consistently undermined by Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Indian National Congress, over his two terms.
Throughout the book, Mr. Baru describes how the prime minister’s choice of senior ministers was overruled by Mrs. Gandhi and leaders loyal to her. Eventually, at least one of those senior ministers ended up being implicated in one of the corruption scandals that tainted the reputation of both Mr. Singh and the United Progressive Alliance, the governing coalition in New Delhi.
After the book’s release on Friday, the prime minister’s office issued a statement calling it fiction. A Congress party representative also called it a work of fiction written by a “disgruntled turncoat.” Upinder Singh, the prime minister’s daughter, told The Indian Express that the book was “a huge betrayal of trust.”
Mr. Baru, who stands by his book, spoke with India Ink on Tuesday about his thoughts on what he deems the Gandhi family’s corrupting influence on the Congress party and the dangers of dynastic politics, as well as the failures and successes of the prime minister.
You have said before that Manmohan Singh’s ascent is a more compelling narrative than Barack Obama’s. Why do you think that?
Here is a guy who lived in a very rural village in Punjab which is now part of Pakistan. There was no electricity, no school, no hospital, no modern infrastructure associated with modern life. He had to walk miles to go to school, his mother dies early, his father’s never there, he’s being brought up by his grandmother, and then finally he moves to live with an uncle in order to get an education.
And all of this is happening until he’s 12 years of age. And then by the time he’s 22, he’s at Cambridge. And then does his Ph.D. from Oxford and gets an international job, so that career track is a remarkable career track.
Obama’s starting point was not as low as Manmohan Singh’s starting point, and Obama’s rise was not as sharp.
You also compare Barack Obama’s ability to capitalize on his own narrative politically with Manmohan Singh’s complete inability to do so. Why do you think he wasn’t able to?
The problem was in 2004, Manmohan Singh was not part of the campaign. Sonia Gandhi was head of the party, and she chose him to become prime minister, so that’s why he called himself the accidental prime minister. But by 2009, he could have in fact run the campaign on the basis of his record. He could have said all the things I just said of his life and the way he’s made it up the ladder and his successful tenure as prime minister. But he would never want to do that because he thought it was not correct for him to project his political personality.
At the very end of the book, you start to talk about your personal disappointment as part of this middle-class electorate with the prime minister, and you say that the prime minister promised “loyalty to hereditary succession,” which is “a monarchical attribute, not a democratic one.” Do you think dynastic politics has hurt democracy in India, and will there be a referendum on that in this election?
First, the Indian National Congress is a party of our national movement. It’s a more than 150-year-old political party. And this is the political party that made India a free country. And I think it’s done enormous damage to Indian democracy that this national party, that this historic party has been taken over by a family, so that it’s just a mother, daughter, son-in-law, son, that become the key figures of the party. Everybody else is secondary, including the prime minister.
And secondly, this election is about a party in which the leader has come through like a meritocracy, a succession of leadership with Modi and the B.J.P. where he has climbed every step and come up challenging others. And then there is Rahul Gandhi, who has done virtually nothing in the last 10 years. I mean, he’s tried hard but made no impact. So here is a young man who has actually not been able to make a political impact, but he’s still there because he’s the son of his parents. And so I’m saying that we need to reverse it because we are a democracy, and we need political parties who can reinvent themselves.
You said you feel that the Gandhis have destroyed the office of the prime minister. Are you angry about that?
Absolutely. And I don’t only blame the Gandhis, I also blame Manmohan Singh. That’s the one charge I make against Manmohan Singh in this book. For all the criticism I’ve been showered with, people calling me a betrayer, a backstabber, frankly the only criticism I have of Manmohan Singh is that he weakened the office of the prime minister and he brought down the dignity of the office.
His daughter said you told her the book was going to come out after the elections. You’ve been criticized for allowing this book to come out at a politically damaging time for the Congress party, the implication being that you might have a motive behind it.
That is true, I told a lot of people that the book would come out after the elections, that was my condition with my publisher. I kept insisting that I don’t want it to come out before the elections, partially because it wasn’t very clear that this would be the end of prime minister. But when he announced his retirement, which was on Jan. 3, my publishers have become more insistent. So that was the reason for the change in timing. My publishers also thought that if I brought the book out after the election, Manmohan Singh would disappear from the public space. And there they were right.
The B.J.P. is showing passages of your book to indict their opponents.
Well, my book is political, so I’m not surprised. To be honest my biggest worry, and I kept saying that to my publisher, and my editors’ biggest worry, and my worry was that this book would be seen as propaganda for Manmohan Singh. They said listen, you’re being too nice, all you’re saying is he a great prime minister. I was never worried that I would be seen as criticizing.
People say that the Bharatiya Janata Party will win. As someone who served under the U.P.A. government, what’s your reaction to that?
In many ways the opinion polls and public perception vindicates the point I make in the book that the decline in the image of the prime minister and the image of the government and the image of the country in the last three to four years has created the space for the growth of the opposition, so Modi is walking into the space created by this government.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)