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The uncivil non-civil servant...
Sanjaya Baru was among the most visible and competent press advisors to a prime minister. A person highly qualified, a journalist known for his flair and felicity for lucid communication and one who was equal to the wily machinations of Delhi politics, handled his job with consummate efficiency.

BARU’S admiration for the sterling qualities of Dr Manmohan Singh and projecting his views to the media imparted considerable strength to the prime minister’s office (PMO). So his book recounting the intrigues and shenanigans of realpolitik, observing from the ring side seat and writing on these with incisive comments have understandably evoked a great deal of interest. The timing of release and the unflattering description of diarchy with power exercised by the party chief, often sidelining and ignoring the head of the government have, understandably evoked a lot of reaction.

 

Lack of a political background

Of course, the basic charge that the party chief was the prime centre of power has been well-known. In fact it was the reason for several of the senior ministers of the Congress party and those of other parties bypassing the prime minister. The lack of political base for Dr. Singh has been his weakest spot. Heavyweights like Pranab Mukherjee, close confidants like A K Antony, acerbic leaders who were sidelined like Mani Shankar Aiyar and even political lightweights like Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan could act on their own without much concern for the views of the prime minister.

The matter was worse when it came to representatives from coalition partners. The prime minister had little control over the nominees of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, Lalu’s RJD, Karunanidhi’s DMK or Shibu Soren’s JMM. Just on the strength of political support several of these were loaded into the cabinet with little to offer in terms of performance. Has one heard of much contribution from Palanimanickam or Jagathrakshagan of DMK or of the representatives of RJD? Mamata Banerjee, as Railway Minister, did not align with the policies dear to Dr. Singh. When her nominee Dinesh Trivedi agreed with the prime minister’s approach and sought to rationalise tariff, she forced his exit, leaving the PM a silent spectator. Tackling Lalu Prasad or Shibu Soren was equally problematic.


Super Finance Minister

I have had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Singh for over three decades. He had a long tenure as the Chief Economic Advisor, then performed as the Governor-Reserve Bank, later as Member-Planning Commission, Advisor to the Prime Minister and as Finance Minister. When the Congress was not in power for eight years from 1996 to 2004, Dr. Singh served as the party’s economic think tank. All through, he has been known for his quiet, dignified and efficient performance. Particularly brilliant was his tenure as the finance minister when Narasimha Rao treated him with respect. The 180-degree turn in economic policy launched under his stewardship in 1991 was smooth. The economy opened up and got integrated with the global economy in a seamless fashion. His stature was a big help in winning recognition across the globe. This expanded further during his tenure as a prime minister from 2004. Dr. Singh will be remembered most for handling foreign relations with such fervor and elan.

I had the opportunity to cover the Bush-Dr. Singh meeting at Washington in 2005 and was also part of the media delegation that accompanied the Prime Minister to England and Finland in 2006. Sanjaya Baru, as Press Advisor, handled these and other foreign trips of the prime minister with ease and elegance. The frequent press briefings to the mass media at the Prime Minister’s office in South Block were handled by him with consummate ease.

 

Press advisor boosted PMO’s image

In fact, the Press Advisor became all-important as the chief spokesperson for the prime minister. The Principal Information Officer, head of the Press Information Bureau, lost his/her importance. Dr. Singh felt more comfortable establishing bilateral relations with several foreign countries. Obviously these didn’t suffer the embarrassment and even hostility encountered in visits to several states within the country ruled by parties in opposition like Tamil Nadu. Dr. Singh attempted to build new alliances like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa). His look-east policy also helped expand relations with a number of East Asian countries. In all these, the Press Advisor played an important role.  

After H Y Sharada Prasad who had a long tenure as Press Advisor to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi(1966-1988), one had colourless appointees until the advent of Baru. He was unsure of the re-election of UPA in 2009 and opted to leave for a teaching assignment in Singapore. Those who succeeded him at the PMO-Harish Khare and Pankaj Pachauri-were colourless journalists who lacked the drive, dynamism and camaraderie of Baru.

 

Inside his Lakshman Rekha

Of course, times have changed with the 24x7 television medium coming into prominence, aggressive TV journalists like Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai present no-holds-barred discussion programmes that get further vitiated in the election fete.

A conscientious man that Dr. Singh is, his belief in the dharma of bureaucracy of keeping within self-determined boundaries seemed to be to his disadvantage. While Sonia Gandhi may be accused of selecting him in preference to wily politicians like Pranab Mukherjee as a pliable incumbent, for Dr. Singh, the role definition has been strong. He decided on well- delineated division of functions, leaving the management of politics to the Congress President and administration to the PMO. All through the ten years he has kept himself inside the Lakshman Rekha. Sadly, in this bargain he had to face the ignominy of not taking full control over his role as prime minister. He did reveal his authority in sticking to the nuclear deal even risking the fate of UPA when the left parties withdrew support. The consistent high performance of UPA I notwithstanding the 26/11 Mumbai attack, helped the UPA get back to power in 2009. If only Dr. Singh chose to retire after winning for Congress the elections for which he could have taken a good deal of credit, he would have been rated among the best prime ministers of the country. Sadly, it was not to be.

Times have changed. Civil servants in the past seem to be bound by certain written and unwritten code of keeping secrecy of decisions and discussions as sacred. There is no such sanctity today with IAS officers and even Army Generals freely criticizing decisions in TV discussions and writing books. Even more inexplicable is this trend extended to serving officers. A relatively young IAS officer, Srivats Ram, writes critical articles in Times of India with the disclaimer that views are ‘personal’!

So, Baru, a journalist, who was on a contract job, can afford to be uncivil free from the compulsions and service conditions of a civil servant!

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