Sanjaya inside the PM's chamber!

The man I know and why he’s probably the fittest man to have written the controversial book on Manmohan Singh and UPA1

rohit

Rohit Bansal | April 12, 2014




Legend has it that Sanjaya Baru’s mom wanted her son to be a journalist. So what better than to name him ‘Sanjay-a’ – inspired by the Original Reporter in Vyas’s Mahabharata!

It doesn’t really matter, dear reader, when we met. But suffice to say it was really long ago, and Baru has, subsequently, had a defining role in my life in more ways than he might know. I hope a ringside view of some events of our lives might explain the context of why he has written this important book titled ‘The Accidental Prime Minister - The Making and Unmaking Of Manmohan Singh’.

For starters, Baru chaired my selection board where his task was to decide whether I would join The Times of India or The Economic Times. India was still in the early months of opening up. Narasimha Rao was the PM – Baru had a Telugu bidda going for him. Ditto with Manmohan Singh, thanks to Baru’s father BPR Vithal, the distinguished econocrat. ET was speeding ahead and Baru – a hire of TN Ninan who had re-launched the paper in its pink avatar but then moved on to lead Business Standard as a rival – was the resident editor of its Delhi edition.

I undid my case when the chair asked who inspired me to enter journalism. I said I wanted to work with Arun Shourie, Dileep Padgaonkar and RK Laxman! My research was bad, and Baru looked distinctly put off by my naiveté. Lo behold, there I was, seconded to the Business Times in the TOI: my batchmates wrote on swanky Atex computers, I struggled with pen, paper and dotmatrix printers!

But as luck would have it, Baru himself moved to the TOI. The initial role assigned to him was business and economics editor. (He later headed the paper’s edit page before a debatable stint in regional news with Ramoji Rao of Eenadu.)

So, there I was, his reportee in the TOI, our fates conjoined in more ways than one.

At a critical period in my start-up struggle, my only sibling, Rajita, was being denied an entry into ET by the editor Swaminathan A Aiyar because I worked for the TOI. Baru had been our visiting faculty at the Times Centre for Media Studies, and he thought nothing of picking up the phone and speak to Anand Raman, the then editor of Business Today, saying, “Look, ET is stupid. Hire Rajita – she’s better than her brother!”

Moral: The author is helpful to a fault and tactless too! (NB: Anand did the hire, and life took a completely different turn for my sister!)

At Zee, a few years later, I invoked the professor inside the man. He had, by then, moved on from Eenadu for academic assignments with RIS and ICRIER. We did a series of ‘Saral Budget’ classes for our audience. Zee was the biggest at that time. So, one evening he overheard a conversation that Swami (remember!) was being seconded to interview the finance minister. “Rohit, can I do the interview?” Baru asked. I regretted – but till this day I haven’t seen him carry a grudge that folks with half his station in life (and his kripa on our family by helping Rajita) would have nursed.

Moral: Despite an elephantine memory on IoUs, the man moves on; certainly more than most editors I worked with in the last 22 years.

A few years later (the gory details must be air-brushed only for want of space) I found myself as his resident editor of the Delhi edition of the Financial Express. Baru trusted me with a load of information. In fact, his trust was alarming.

“So, what’s the gossip?” would be his opening question five times out of ten. His own contribution to whatever I might say would be from the heart of the Indian system. By way of illustration, it could even be what Brajesh Mishra, the Bhishma inside the NDA, might have told him on Condoleezza Rice! (Baru had served on the national security advisory board.)

Moral: Most of the anecdotal stuff in the book has been freely discussed over the NDA/UPA years – those claiming that it is erroneous and an afterthought might want to check with Baru’s friends and colleagues.

The twist in our lives came on a balmy evening in May 2004. UPA was forming the government with Left support, I was reporting from the trenches outside Harkishan Singh Surjeet’s house, and Baru called from wherever he was in the US as part of the Aspen Dialogue. “Is Manmohan going to be PM?” he asked. I said what I did, but within a few days of his return, my mentor was media advisor to Manmohan Singh and I the Eklavya firing arrows in the forest!

It was later apparent to me that veteran bureaucrat NN Vohra had a role in the selection. “Sanjaya apna bachcha hai,” the J&K guv told Singh – the PM only too happy not to be saddled with an older HK Dua from the Chandigarh mafia. Remember, TKA Nair, who Baru never ever liked, was already in, thanks to their Tribune network.

My sense is that Sonia Gandhi left her Regent to make all the important recruitments to the PMO – which he did, save for Pulok Chatterjee, the then additional secretary, who would be the clearing house between 10 Janpath and 7 RCR. A twist in the tale explains what happened over the next 10 years of the UPA. After Baru and PM met, Nair said the media advisor will be given the rank and pay of an additional secretary. Baru told him off. “Editors don’t become additional secretaries,” he said (or words to that effect).

“Shall I go to PM?” he asked. Nair shrewdly backtracked. “Your promotion to secretary would happen within six months,” he said. The promise was kept and Baru briefly pegged higher than Pulok! But the cadre IAS/IFS bureaucracy never quite let him think and act like a secretary. In one visit to the UN, Baru was asked to live in the plebian Lexington hotel meant for the media – not the New York Palace where the PM and the official retinue were housed. Only a row restored him back.

Isolated within a PMO that was only a back office of 10 Janpath anyways, Baru was left to advise Manmohan Singh mainly as a personal confidante. Au contraire, Nair quickly understood how to coexist with Pulok and Ahmed Patel, the political advisor to the Congress president. But Baru neither surrendered nor ever built a communication channel with the First Family.

“I serve Manmohan Singh (not 10 Janpath). Our tenures, PM has told me, are coterminous,” he would confide in hundreds of people with characteristic directness!

“My job is like selling BMW – kuchh karna nahin padta!” he would add.

A trusting criticism about a Kashmiri minister ended that myth. A lady journalist dutifully reported back to the minister how poorly Baru thought of him. The shrewd mantri turned this private opinion of the PM’s media advisor into the PM’s opinion! Not surprisingly, Manmohan disowned entertaining such an opinion and dispatched his aide to visit the said minister and apologise. Baru did, but not before making up his mind that the ‘BMW’ isn’t quite one.

So, off to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Government in Singapore – an invitation that had been pending for a while. The island-nation was only too delighted to have an academic-turned-editor-turned-contemporary-insider-to-India’s-PMO on its faculty. Remember, this was also the time when UPA-I was considered to be a sure loser in the general elections and even Pulok had abandoned the ship with a dollar-denominated Washington posting.

But UPA-II was back with the TOI screaming, “Singh is King!” In the interim, the relationship had got mended and PM continued sending emails to his estranged media advisor, seeking his counsel from time to time. On a flying visit to India, Baru was, I may mention by way of illustration, the first man outside Singh’s immediate family invited by Gursharan Kaur to meet her husband when he was recovering from a heart ailment. It is equally true that Baru didn’t indulge the PM’s wife when she would ask him for any work – Manmohan had left strict instructions that he must be informed each time Kaur asked for something important. Baru followed that – Kaur stopped bypassing the PM after one or two failed attempts.

Perhaps, the breaking point was when Baru came back from Singapore mainly at the PM’s instance when UPA-II was installed. As the book mentions (and I don’t want to steal its thunder), a few jobs were offered, but Baru wasn’t interested in an encore as media advisor. Yet, he wanted to have a position inside PMO. That never happened – the syndicate struck back. They wanted to puncture the myth of “Singh is King”. The simplest technique was to deny Singh the right to select his own team.

A few days of joblessness hurt – that’s when Ninan made an offer for Baru to edit Business Standard. This wasn’t such a great deal. Ninan continued to call the shots, just as Ashok Bhattacharya remained executive editor, leading all aspects of operations. At a BS event, the PM deviated from the assigned path and graciously apologised for the failed promise. Baru forgave him, but was intellectually persuaded that the narrative of Singh as an accidental PM – and the First Family made and unmade him – shouldn’t remain in the gossip circuit.

Moral: Satyameva Jayate – and I’m glad it’s been told for the next generations to read and reflect beyond MMS jokes and toons.

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