Writing no wrongs

Wed 16 Apr 2014

The over-the-top reaction of the Prime Minister’s Office to a book by Manmohan Singh’s former media adviser confirm a long-known side of Indian politicians: they have a terribly thin skin, especially in respect of the printed word, unless of course it is a hagiography. With independent India, much to its own detriment, quite lacking in the diary, memoir & biography department, the intolerance has grown with every book that has remained unwritten. Reactions to those that do get written are absurdly overheated. In this light, the PMO’s description of Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh as the “misuse [of] a privileged position and access to high office” is hardly surprising. Compare this with the White House’s handling of Robert M. Gates’s recently published Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War .

The former defense secretary, the only one to have served both a Republican and Democrat President, takes down Vice President Joe Biden as being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”, and criticises President Obama for not being passionately supportive of the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan. The White House put out a calm statement defending Mr. Biden, saying Mr. Obama depended on his Vice President’s “good counsel every day”. The sophisticated handling probably comes with practice; the political memoir is a well-established genre in book writing in western democracies. The release of another tell-all book by the former Coal Secretary, P.C. Parakh, on irregularities in coal mining allocations is an indication that India is catching up. It is a good sign.

The Prime Minister, his office and the Congress party are free to contest Mr. Baru’s contention that his former boss deferred to the wishes of Sonia Gandhi on all important issues, but there is nothing here that was not already widely known or believed. The author has not misused his position to reveal national secrets or endanger national security. The book can be criticised for its interpretations and analyses, but accusing the author of trying to make a fast buck by releasing the book during the elections, or attributing political motives to the timing, is unacceptable. In fact, timing is everything in publishing, as it is in the media. In another month, the interest in the subject would have been academic. If Prime Minister Singh feels betrayed, as his daughter has now said, that is not a national problem. Dr. Singh’s best revenge would be to write his own book putting out his side of the story. Yet history will be the best judge of Dr. Singh’s tenure and his achievements, particularly the remarkable paradigm shift in India’s economic management, are bound to stand this self-effacing yet principled Prime Minister in good stead.


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