The Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh partnership has its share of complexities, but it has been an enduring one

“Sir, I want to give you a hug,” Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi told the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, after concluding his speech at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session on January 17, 2014, in Delhi. Mr. Gandhi then embraced the Prime Minister, who too had stood up to give him a standing ovation, even as others on the dais watched curiously.

Only a few months earlier, in September 2013, Mr. Gandhi had termed ridiculous an ordinance signed off by Dr. Singh that sought to give relief to convicted lawmakers. This move had led to an uproar by many who were of the opinion that Mr. Gandhi had undermined the authority of the Prime Minister. Even Congress president Sonia Gandhi thought it could have been handled better. “You may have said the right thing, but you said it in the wrong way,” she told Mr. Gandhi, according to people in the know. Subsequently, Mr. Gandhi met the Prime Minister and explained that he did not mean disrespect, though he stood by his position that the ordinance had to go.

The functioning of the diarchy

The relationship between the Gandhi family and the Prime Minister can be subject to various interpretations, but any objective understanding of its big picture cannot be about how they differed, but about how they endured and flourished. As a sales pitch for a book, it may be a nice idea to portray that the Prime Minister’s loyalty to the Gandhis was “misplaced and unrewarded,” but as a subject of contemporary political history, the argument is highly problematic and even biased. Therefore, the book, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh by Sanjaya Baru — the former media adviser to the Prime Minister — is a grossly misunderstood narrative of the functioning of the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh diarchy over the last 10 years.

It is indeed true that various attempts have been made from within the Congress to undermine the Prime Minister and to drive a wedge between Mrs Gandhi and Dr. Singh. But it is also true that Mrs Gandhi has always reined in such tendencies. There are numerous examples. In September 2006, at the Nainital conclave of the Congress party, at a joint press conference addressed by the two leaders, the Prime Minister was asked whether he would appoint a deputy. “[There is] absolutely not going to be a Deputy Prime Minister. I am saying it categorically,” Mrs Gandhi intervened to respond. In March 2009, at the release of the Congress manifesto, Mrs Gandhi was asked whether there would be a change in leadership in the second term. Mrs Gandhi covered her own photograph on the cover of the manifesto to reveal Dr. Singh’s. “He is the only leader.” After the party retained power for a second term, Mrs Gandhi was sceptical of heading the National Advisory Council (NAC) for a second time and asked her close confidantes how the NAC-I paired with the Prime Minister’s authority. It took almost a year, until March 2010, before the NAC was constituted. Even after that, she made it a point to keep it as a low profile entity in comparison to NAC-I. Mrs Gandhi makes it a point to call on the Prime Minister always at his residence, and always waits for him at meetings. The only time Dr. Singh drives to 10 Janpath — Mrs Gandhi’s residence — is to attend Congress Working Committee meetings. And both meet without any aides, every week, before the meeting of the Congress Core group.

Pursuit of pro-westernism

There is the undeniable existence of dual power centres and Sonia Gandhi is indeed the supreme authority — because she is a politician, something that Dr. Singh, despite being in politics for two decades now, has not become. The former Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Dr. Singh’s first boss in his political career — had in an interview in 2004, candidly and politely talked about Dr. Singh being an “economist and not a politician,” and how his (Rao’s) political instincts and skills managed the course of economic reforms. Dr. Singh himself has been aware of his limitations as much as his strengths and deferred to the political authority — first to Rao and later to Mrs Gandhi. Even in the so-called best years of Dr. Singh, his 1991-96 term as Finance Minister of India, it was not a case of his expertise or authority reigning supreme in all matters related to economic reforms, divorced from the surrounding political realities.

It is not that there haven’t been personality clashes and ideological disagreements between the Congress and its leadership on the one side and Dr. Singh and his promoters such as Mr. Baru on the other. The ideological pro-westernism that Dr. Singh pursued in the first tenure went against the grain for the Congress. In 2005, at Oxford University, he almost thanked the British Empire for Indian modernity; in 2008, he declared at the White House that the people of India “deeply loved” the U.S. President, George W. Bush — statements that a Congress Prime Minister should have thought over several times before he made them. In 2007, Dr. Singh challenged the Left to withdraw support to the Congress government risking an alliance that Mrs Gandhi had nurtured with care, as she was mindful of the necessity of alliances with all like-minded parties. Mrs Gandhi may be the supreme authority, but Dr. Singh’s views have prevailed on many occasions, including on the question of the civil nuclear deal with the U.S., as Mrs Gandhi had deferred the decision to the Prime Minister.

2009 and a recalibration

However, after the 2009 election, Dr. Singh tried to expand his role beyond the tolerance limits of the party, perhaps partly egged on by the narrative that the mandate was for his personal style and content rather than the party’s or the Gandhis, an argument that Mr. Baru himself is making in the book. The inflection point was the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement between Dr. Singh and his Pakistani counterpart in July 2009 that delinked progress in containing terrorism from India-Pakistan dialogue. As the Bharatiya Janata Party bayed for his blood, the Congress stood silent. After a full fortnight, the first official statement from the Congress merely stated that the Prime Minister was capable of defending himself. One could well argue that from then on, Dr. Singh recalibrated his positions — particularly in relations with the United States, with Pakistan, etc — in order to fit them within the overall politics of the Congress party. Terming Dr. Singh’s repositioning as mere capitulation before the party (as if he and the Congress are two mutually exclusive entities), and then going on to describing it as his unmaking is not merely uncharitable, but inaccurate also.

For an objective observer of the functioning of the Singh-Gandhi diarchy, all this, including the disagreements and the quarrels, would have appeared to be like signs of a strong and enduring partnership. It has been an unprecedented and untested model and it would be a challenging exercise to discover a similar pattern of power sharing anywhere in the history of modern democracy.

Another allegation levelled in the book is regarding the Prime Minister’s inability to choose his own team. If the story is true that the Congress party vetoed the return of Mr. Baru to the government in the second term, then Dr. Singh should be grateful to the party for that, especially now after reading the former's book. This narrative — that it was the Congress party or the Gandhi family that stood between greatness and Dr. Singh — will sooner or later reduce the Congress’ stake in Manmohan Singh’s legacy. For Dr. Singh, who hoped that history would be kinder to him, this book is not a good beginning.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in

More In: Lead | Opinion