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The Accidental PM: Movie lacks book’s complexities, context

Ajaz Ashraf

To understand why The Accidental Prime Minister has been dubbed as yet another instance of propaganda against the Congress and the Gandhis, rewind to the book on which the film is based. Compare the book’s structure with that of the film. Note the elements of the book the film chooses to show and the portions it exaggerates. Launched in 2014, journalist Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh sought to tell the story of his stint as media advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) between May 2004 and August 2008.
His account of those years was understandably from his perspective. He did not, for instance, interview political personalities on whom he wrote reams. Yet it was, in some ways, a layered narrative of the larger context in which Manmohan and Baru functioned.
The Accidental Prime Minister, the film, lacks in context and complexities. It does not seek to understand Manmohan, demonises the Gandhis, portrays Rahul Gandhi as a cretin hungry for power, and the Congress a beehive of conspirators for whom the nation is not paramount. The film comes across as a mere propaganda largely because it elides some crucial elements from Baru’s narrative.
For instance, a substantial section of the film revolves around Manmohan’s manoeuvres to win the civilian nuclear deal for India. The Left is portrayed as the principal opponent of the nuclear deal: which they were. Then Congress president Sonia Gandhi is depicted as being extremely reluctant to sacrifice the government for the deal. As the film unspools, the audience is likely to ask: What was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s position on Manmohan’s decision to enter into a nuclear agreement with the United States of America?
Indeed, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was as hostile to the nuclear deal as any party. About it, Baru dwells at some length in his book. He wrote, “The BJP too was a divided house. Moderate leaders like [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee and even younger ones like Arun Jaitley were not resolutely opposed to the deal. It was clear that just as [Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash] Karat had used his opposition to the deal as a way of rallying his own party’s cadres behind him, [BJP leader] LK Advani, too, chose to adopt a rigid stance to force his party to abandon the Vajpayee line and accept him as the new leader.”
In the book, Baru wrote how the divisions within the BJP surfaced during Manmohan’s briefing to its leaders on the deal. Advani was absent, but the meeting was attended by Vajpayee, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Brajesh Mishra. Baru noted, “Sinha and Shourie asked the scientists, diplomats and PMO officials many searching questions, expressing their skepticism about what had been secured.” By contrast, former foreign minister Jaswant Singh complimented the officers on their endeavour. Baru quotes Jaswant saying, “Gentlemen, you have done the nation proud!”
During the meeting Vajpayee kept silent. At a point in the briefing, the irrepressible Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Advisor during the National Democratic Alliance-I regime, got up from his chair, walked around the table and handed over a paper to Vajpayee, who looked at it, tucked it into his pocket, and did not say anything. When the BJP luminaries started to troop out of the room, Vajpayee, wrote Baru, “gave Dr Singh a warm smile and the two shook hands… as if to suggest the PM had done a good job…” Manmohan is quoted in the book telling Vajpayee, “I have completed what you began.”
Indeed, it was Vajpayee who initiated what is called the NSSP or Next Step in Strategic Partnership, which paved the way for the India-US nuclear deal. The NSSP was credited to Mishra, who relentlessly attacked the nuclear deal when its contours were first disclosed on 18 July, 2005. The film does not tell us how Manmohan brought Mishra around. In an interview to TV anchor Karan Thapar, Mishra expressed his approval of the deal. Baru wrote, “Mishra told Thapar that if the government were to now back off and not clinch the deal with the US it would be a ‘serious loss of face.’”
Baru’s book makes it amply clear that most major parties were divided over the nuclear deal. This was as true of the Left. There was the hardline stance of Karat, who viewed America as imperialists with whom there ought to be no truck. There was the moderate line represented by Sitaram Yechury, who was of the view that the Left should not withdraw support from the Manmohan government and plunge the nation into a crisis.
Ultimately, Karat’s view prevailed and the Left MPs fell in line. But not Somnath Chatterjee, who defied Karat’s diktat and refused to resign as the Lok Sabha Speaker. Chatterjee was summarily expelled from the party. So obsessed is the film in portraying the Gandhis as villains, it ignores little heroes, like Chatterjee, who made the nuclear deal possible: and does not allude to the dubious role the BJP played during the entire brouhaha.
The Left’s withdrawal of support from the government prompted Manmohan to take a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha. The film shows how Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh bailed out the government. Yet, it is incredible that the film should have glossed over on what transpired in the Lok Sabha during the confidence vote. It was dramatic: just the stuff film-makers crave. Worse, Baru provided a vivid description of the drama in his book.
Baru wrote, “At 4 pm, some members of the BJP placed wads of rupee notes on the table of the Lok Sabha secretary general and alleged that they had been paid this money in exchange for support to the government. Senior BJP leaders then informed the media that a sting operation had also been conducted by a TV channel and proof of the bribing would be shown on TV.”
The sting operation was supposedly conducted by Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN. “[Union minister] Prithviraj Chavan called… Sardesai … and warned him of legal consequences if the channel televised the visuals,” wrote Baru.
The nation never learnt the truth about the notes-for-vote scam. Was it a conspiracy to bring down the government and nix the nuclear deal? Was the BJP willing to sacrifice the nuclear deal to derive a political advantage a year or so before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections? Did the filmmaker deliberately elide the dramatic story of confidence vote because it does not suit the BJP three or four months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
Obviously, the film’s writers will argue that their intention was to portray how Manmohan was unmade by the Gandhis, whose unmistakable preference was to save the government rather than the nuclear deal. They and the Congress are made to appear as an exception in this regard. This is untrue: every party heading a coalition has to compromise on its agenda. For instance, the BJP chose not to pursue the Ayodhya issue, Article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code when it headed the NDA-I, which comprised a medley of disparate parties, between 1999 and 2004.
Before the interval, the film is at least based on Baru’s account, regardless of his own prejudices and subjectivity. The second part is mostly fiction. Baru quit the PMO in October 2008. He did not have a ringside view of the happenings the film portrays. For instance, he could not have known whether Sonia Gandhi refused to accept Manmohan’s resignation because she did not think the time was opportune for Rahul Gandhi to succeed him. His government, Sonia is imperiously shown telling Manmohan in the film, is buffeted by scams and high inflation.
But even if it is assumed that this incident did indeed occur, the audience is not provided a reason why Manmohan acceded to Sonia. Perhaps it is not in Manmohan’s personality to defy authority. Why? In the book, Baru links Manmohan’s self-effacing, shy personality to his childhood experiences.
As Baru wrote, “I always wondered how much of this ‘shyness’ was a defence mechanism acquired during a difficult childhood when, after his mother’s death, he had to live with an uncle’s family because his father was rarely at home. Since his uncle and aunt had their own children to take care of, the young Manmohan was left to his own devices. Dr Singh had happy memories of his student and teaching life in Amritsar but I noticed that he rarely spoke about his childhood…”
Thus, it became Manmohan’s habit to take the path of least resistance, or at least what Baru seems to imply. It was a survival tactic. The film does not seek to understand Manmohan, but focuses on disparaging him. The film has, obviously, dramatised and fictionalised the scenes in which Sonia refuses to accept Manmohan’s resignation. In such a scenario, it raises pertinent questions regarding the extent to which a filmmaker can push the right to free speech. Both Manmohan and Sonia are alive. This portion is not incidental; it is not a mild exaggeration of what happened.
These scenes have been created to show that Sonia merely wants to vest power in her family, is shockingly selfish, and has no regard for the prime minister. It also shows Manmohan lacking courage and self-esteem. Though the Congress is best advised not to go to court, it is hard to see how a judge would not perceive the film as anything less than calumny.
In case Manmohan did indeed offer to resign, it is quite possible he withdrew it because he did not wish to show ingratitude to Sonia for choosing him as prime minister. Yes, she perhaps made Manmohan PM not only because she judged him to possess skills for running the government, but also because he did not seem like a person who would betray her. Manmohan owed his prominence to the Congress. His decision to remain loyal to the person was and is a personal one.
Baru, however, did not want Manmohan to be fettered by a sense of loyalty and gratitude to the Gandhis. Indeed, gratitude did not deter Baru from embarrassing Manmohan by disclosing their private conversations. Baru even calls him “spineless” in his book. And to think, the love Manmohan and his family showered on Baru. For instance, after Manmohan underwent heart surgery in 2009, Baru was allowed to meet him even before Sonia and then president Pratibha Patil. There is a poignant account of that meeting in Baru’s book.
Dr Srinath Reddy, who headed the team of doctors that looked after Manmohan, told Baru in the book: “He [Manmohan] is not eating enough and need to get up and walk. So when Mrs Kaur [Manmohan’s wife] heard you were here [in Delhi from Singapore, where Baru was on a teaching assignment], she wondered whether meeting you might help revive his spirits. I can see it has. He has not spoken for an entire day. Whatever he said to you were his first words today.”
The film shows Baru meeting a convalescing Manmohan, but excises what Dr Reddy told Baru. Instead, in the film, Baru is beset with nostalgia: there is a series of flashbacks. Did the film’s writers omit Dr Reddy because it would have established Manmohan’s deep affection for Baru, who plays the narrator’s role in the film, and made him appear treacherous? A treacherous narrator, without suffering from remorse, is never a credible and reliable one.
This is why The Accidental Prime Minister comes across as a vicious attack on the Gandhis and Manmohan. Any doubts on this score are removed in the concluding parts of the film: Rahul is shown talking about the chowkidar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the dynast and his mother. True, these are snatches from the 2014 election campaign. But given that both have remained stuck in the 2014 groove, the film can only be construed as providing the BJP a helping hand to demolish the Gandhis.