NEW DELHI : Despite being plagued by corruption scandals, economic slowdown and a perceived effete government, the UPA-II could not afford to “retire” Manmohan Singh as prime minister as Rahul Gandhi had repeatedly failed to deliver electoral victories for the Congress party, says a revealing new book.
During the 2009 elections, many believed the Congress party had purposefully got Manmohan Singh’s face plastered on the party manifesto and election posters believing the party was headed for defeat and the blame could be taken by the prime minister, says Sanjaya Baru, former media adviser to the prime minister, in his book “The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh” (Penguin), that hit the stands Friday.
On talks between Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf of a Kashmir peace formula: Baru says Manmohan Singh wanted Musharraf “to own and propagate the Kashmir ‘peace formula’. He was quite willing to sell this as a ‘Musharraf formula’ rather than a Manmohan-Musharraf formula.” Manmohan thought there would be more opposition to it in Pakistan and Musharraf would have to deal with political parties, religious groups and the army. Singh thought in India there would be “a wider constituency of support”, including from his party. He though the only real opposition would come from the BJP.
But he underestimated the likely resistance from within his own party. Both Pranab Mukherjee and A.K. Antony, as successive defence ministers in UPA-1, “were reportedly not enthusiastic about a deal on Siachen, though Sonia had blessed the peace formula”. The armed forces were “ambivalent” with retired generals favouring a deal to end the agony of the troops fighting on the glacier but serving generals not willing to trust Pakistan on a deal.
On the Congress’ win in 2009 general elections: Few in the Congress had expected the UPA to win. Before the election verdict, “many believed that Dr Singh’s face had been printed on the cover of the manifesto and on election posters so that the expected defeat in that election could be explained away as his defeat and Rahul Gandhi, whose picture was not printed on the party manifesto or posters, could then claim leadership as the agent of change. ”
Baru quotes a senior political journalist as saying that Rahul was looking forward to “a tenure as the leader of the Opposition so as to burnish his own political credentials, differentiating himself, perhaps even distancing himself, from Dr Singh’s legacy. Few expected the Congress to return to power until almost the very end of the campaign. They all underestimated Dr Singh’s popularity and the lacklustre image of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, among his own partymen. ”
On why the Congress could not “retire” Manmohan Singh in UPA-II, Baru writes that plagued by corruption controversies, the economic slowdown and persistent inflation, the government’s popularity declined. The Congress party “began to switch gears and focus on succession, hoping Rahul Gandhi would rise to the occasion and take charge. Planted stories began to appear in the media about Dr Singh’s imminent retirement. However, Rahul’s repeated inability to deliver results for the party in a series of state elections meant that Dr Singh could not be ‘retired’ and created a vacuum at the top.”
Rahul Gandhi’s public outburst last September saying the ordinance to allow tainted lawmakers to continue should be “torn up and thrown away”, was “probably to bolster his image”. “Rahul chose defiance to authority as his strategy for political relevance,” he writes.
On Manmohan Singh’s relationship with Sharad Pawar: “With Pawar, there was a special relationship. Dr Singh often recalled how Pawar always lent support to him whenever his policies came under attack from within the Congress party. He regarded Pawar as an ‘ally’ against his critics in the Cabinet, like Arjun Singh, A.K. Antony and Vayalar Ravi.”
On Sonia and Manmohan ties. The two did not have much contact besides their regular meetings. When the core group met at 7, RCR, Sonia would arrive first and have an exclusive chat with Manmohan. “That was when the two spoke to each other in private”. Singh rarely spoke in the core-group meetings. “He would hear what others had to say and take his decisions after having another word with Sonia.” There was also very little social contact between the families of the two leaders. However, “once in a while Sonia would call on Dr Singh to discuss family matters…There were, after all, few family elders available to give her advice on things that may have bothered her in her personal life.”
Baru writes that “on at least one occasion she came to see Dr Singh to discuss her concerns about Rahul’s personal plans. Following that conversation, Dr Singh invited Rahul for lunch and the two spent time together.”
“In private, Sonia often addressed Dr Singh as Manmohan, which, given her Western background, suggested she felt closer and more familial in her relationship with him than with other senior leaders of his generation. Dr Singh, for his part, always referred to her as Soniaji or Mrs Gandhi and treated her with old-fashioned courtesy.”