The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh is Sanjaya Baru’s book about his time as media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh between 2004 and 2008. It has caused a political storm by revealing details of how Congress President Sonia Gandhi crippled Manmohan Singh’s ability to function independently. But it also has a number of revelations about the media. Here are some interesting ones.
1) No limousines for choice editors: Baru found that during the Vajpayee regime, senior editors were given special privileges, such as getting limousines from the Indian embassy while on a foreign trip with the PM, even as the rest of the media contingent followed in a bus. “I was told that Vajpayee’s [foster] son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, who had befriended many senior editors, had taken personal interest in ensuring that the PMO’s favoured journalists were well looked after. I brought an end to all such privileges and incurred the wrath of some professional peers. The only privilege I retained was the serving of good-quality alcohol on the PM’s plane,” Baru writes.
2) The pro-Sonia journalists: After taking over as media advisor, Baru was relieved to see that “a large majority” of journalists were “just professionals doing their job and as long as one dealt with them with courtesy and regard for their need to get a good story, they would always be objective in their reporting, often even supportive without my even trying very hard. A second category of journalists were those who liked being pampered and given additional attention. A junket here or an exclusive story there...The third category were partisan journalists – pro-BJP, pro-Left, pro-Sonia, pro-Arjun [Singh], pro-Pranab [Mukherjee] and so on – and my approach was to keep them at a distance. This did upset some, especially those close to Sonia who assumed the government was theirs and the PMO should treat them with deference.”
3) On Siddharth Varadarajan: The then national security advisor JN ‘Mani’ Dixit was not in favour of allowing senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan on the PM’s plane for a certain trip. Baru writes, “Within the PMO, [former national security advisor] Mani Dixit’s imperious style inevitably came into conflict with my own more freewheeling and irreverent style of functioning. Our first disagreement was on who could travel with the PM on his official plane. Seeing the name of Times of India journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, who later served as editor of The Hindu, on the media list, Mani sent me a note informing me that Siddharth was not an Indian national but an American citizen and, as a foreign national, was not entitled to travel on the PM’s plane.” Baru got the PM to intervene and allow Varadarajan, his former colleague, on board. (The Delhi High Court dismissed a petition by Subramanian Swamy last year, asking that Varadarajan be disallowed from being editor of The Hindu as he was not an Indian national.)
4) On Prannoy Roy: In 2005, Manmohan Singh was trying to get foreign minister Natwar Singh on his side to prepare to push the Indo-US civil nuclear energy agreement through parliament, when NDTV put out a story that Natwar Singh had performed poorly in a “report card” exercise by the PMO. Natwar was upset and took leave for a day, citing health grounds. The Prime Minister was in Moscow when this happened, and he got Baru to immediately call up NDTV owner Prannoy Roy. Manmohan Singh took the phone from Baru and scolded Roy, who had been economic advisor to Manmohan Singh when Singh was finance minister in the Narasimha Rao government. “The PM scolded him like he was chiding a student who had erred, saying, ‘This is not correct. You cannot report like this.’ After a few minutes Prannoy called me back... ‘Boy, I have not been scolded like that since school! He sounded like a headmaster, not a prime minister,’ complained Prannoy.”
Prannoy Roy gets another mention. While West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was sitting with the prime minister one day in 2005, assuring him that the Bengalis wouldn’t lose control to Prakash Karat in the Communist Party of India (Marxist), NDTV broke news that that is exactly what was going to happen. Baru immediately told the two politicians but Bhattacharya said, “We will see.” The news was taken to be credible by the PMO because Prannoy Roy’s sister-in-law is Brinda Karat, wife of Prakash Karat.
5) On using the media to send a signal to the Left and Sonia about the nuclear deal: Angry with the Left parties for not allowing the Indo-US civil nuclear energy agreement, Manmohan Singh gave Manini Chaterjee of The Telegraph an impromptu interview in parliament in 2005. The next morning The Telegraph ran a headline, “Anguished PM to Left: If You Want to Withdraw, So Be It.” The Congress party was angry. Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel told journalists that Manmohan Singh could not end an alliance he had not formed. But the point was made, a message had been sent out to Sonia Gandhi and the Left parties alike.
6) On Vir Sanghvi: Baru accuses Sanghvi of asking Sonia Gandhi a planted question and Singh a tough question on the same day. Sanghvi was then editor of the Hindustan Times. Baru writes, “On 12 October 2007, both Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh spoke at the Hindustan Times Summit. In response to pre-approved questions that Vir Sanghvi posed to Sonia, she said the survival of the government took precedence over the nuclear deal...” Soon after, Singh stood on the same stage and Sanghvi asked him, “You made a statement to a newspaper which was a bit out of sync with your persona and that started all the controversy. Do you think you overstepped a bit?” Singh said he did not overstep his brief and he knew what he should and should not say.
Vir Sanghvi is accused of being partisan in another instance. Baru writes that the Indian Foreign Service had come to view the post of national security advisor as its turf and tried to thwart the appointment of MK Narayanan to the post in 2005 by ‘deploying’ the media. As part of this campaign, Sanghvi wrote a column dubbing Narayanan as a “flat-footed policeman” and “pushing the idea” that the national security advisor ought to be from the foreign service.
7) On Vinod Mehta: Baru accuses Vinod Mehta, then the editor of Outlook magazine, of being on the side of Sonia Gandhi in the Sonia-Manmohan divide. Baru writes that in a cover story in 2004 about Manmohan Singh asserting himself through the nuclear deal issue, Outlook carefully mentioned Sonia Gandhi’s contribution to Singh doing so: “Sonia wants him to be a political PM, not function like a mere administrator,” the magazine wrote. Baru says this “concession” to the Congress party president was Mehta’s way of making sure he wasn’t on the wrong side of Sonia Gandhi. For the record, Mehta had also criticised Baru in his autobiography, and recently on Times Now news channel Mehta said that Sonia Gandhi had told him that Baru was a “mischief maker”.
8) On Shekhar Gupta: Baru was editor of the Financial Express before joining the PMO as media advisor in 2004. When he called up his boss to tell him about his new job, Shekhar Gupta, then the CEO of the Indian Express group, told him he was wasting his time as the government wouldn’t last six months. Gupta was so sure that the Congress and the Left would not be able to work together that he kept the Financial Express without an editor for six months, expecting Baru to return.
9) Using the media to preempt controversies over appointments: In 2006, Pulok Chatterjee, prinicipal secretary to the prime minister, Sonia Gandhi’s man in the PMO, walked into Baru’s room and asked how much time it would take for Baru to put out an official statement about the appointment of next foreign secretary. “Two minutes,” replied Baru, but Chatterjee did not believe it. Baru explained him all he had to do was send an SMS to editors of Times Now, NDTV and CNN-IBN and the matter would be official and public. This is how the media was used to appoint Shivshankar Menon as India’s new foreign secretary in a way that didn’t allow time to another claimant to raise objections. She did raise objections later, before an administrative tribunal, but nothing came of it.
10) On Shobhana Bhartia and Indu Jain: The prime minister used to meet editors and media owners for breakfast at 8.30am. They would turn up even though they were not early risers like Singh. When a group of publishers was invited in 2004, the only ones to be late were Shobhana Bhartia of the Hindustan Times because she said she took time drying her hair and Indu Jain of The Times of India who said she needed to finish her morning prayers.