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.
Being fair and transparent
By Navin B. Chawla
Two phases of the 2019 general election have been completed. Polling has finished in 186 out of 543 parliamentary constituencies. Polling in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, has been cancelled for corrupt practices. Five phases still remain till counting is comprehensively undertaken for all the seven phases of the election, on May 23. The reason to complete all the phases is that the result of any one phase should not influence the choices that electors may make.
Having served the Election Commission of India (EC) for five-and-a-half years during which I conducted the 2009 general election, I have an insider’s view, but of course am not privy to the inputs that the EC has and on which its decisions are made.
As I have argued in my recent book, Every Vote Counts, several negative features of our electoral scene have worsened. Since the Model Code of Conduct came into effect, in just the first two phases this time, money power has so reared its ugly head that seizures made of unaccounted cash, liquor, bullion and drugs amounting to ₹2,600 crore have already surpassed the entire seizures made in the nine phases of the general election in 2014. Most depressingly, this includes huge hauls of drugs, the vast majority smuggled into Gujarat. Uttar Pradesh is awash with liquor. Tamil Nadu has seen the largest seizures of illicit cash —over ₹514 crore.
These vast sums intended to bribe or influence voters prove several things. The first is that these sums almost certainly represent only a fraction of current illegal spending, a tip of the iceberg as it were. They have been detected by the EC’s machinery acting on the basis of tip-offs, or else by the vigilance of electoral officials in the States. Unfortunately, the bulk of illegal tranches of money, liquor or freebies would have reached their destination. Second, political players have refined their methods in being many steps ahead of the EC’s observers and their vigilance teams by moving their funds to their destinations even before the elections are announced.
Does this not make a mockery of the statutory limit of ₹70 lakh that each Lok Sabha candidate has as his poll expenditure limit?
As a country we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. When every rule in the book is being broken, when there is no transparency on how political parties collect or spend their funds, when limits of candidate spending are exceeded in every single case, then the time has come to debate whether we need to re-examine our rule book. In order to supervise the matches in play, the EC has had to deploy over 2,000 Central observers for the entire duration, drawing them out from their ministries and departments at the cost of their normal work at the Centre and in the States. Thousands of vigilance squads are set up and must act on the information they receive, which is why the current level of seizures have already made this India’s most expensive general election yet. An intelligent guess may lead us to a final tally of spending in excess of ₹50,000 crore, the bulk of which is made up of illicit funding and spending.
It is by now clear as daylight that electoral bonds, far from enabling a legitimate and transparent means of political funding, have proved to be the reverse. The EC, in its own affidavit before the Supreme Court, has admitted as much. The Supreme Court’s order has made sure that full disclosure, albeit to the EC, has already effectively killed further funding along this route. Nothing is a better disinfectant for camouflaged funding than sunlight itself.
With my experience this compels me to say that any serious reform with regard to funding must come from the EC itself, for it is very unlikely that any government will take an initiative in this direction. The EC must take stock after this election is over. It should convene a conference of all stakeholders, including of course all recognised political parties, both Central and State. But this should not be exclusively confined to them, for they will tend to support the status quo or they will be unable to reach consensus. The list of stakeholders must also include the best constitutional and legal minds in our country.
In my book I have also raised the twin problem of candidates fielded with criminal antecedents. The 16th Lok Sabha that has now passed into history, saw almost 30% of its members declaring, in their compulsory self-sworn affidavits, the list of criminal cases registered against them. They are also legally obliged to declare their wealth and their educational qualifications. This is the result of two vital orders passed by the Supreme Court in 2002-2003, the result of a battle that the Association for Democratic Reforms fought tenaciously. Unfortunately, in the first phase of this election, 12% of the candidates perforce declared that they had heinous cases pending, while in the second phase the figure was 11%. It may be noted that these cases include murder, attempt to murder, dacoity, kidnapping and rape. Have we forgotten Nirbhaya and 2012 already?
The matter of the Model Code of Conduct and its administration by the EC has been the most frequently reported single issue in this election. For those of a certain generation, the 10th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), T.N. Seshan — he once famously declared that “he ate politicians for breakfast” — was the man who made the country sit up and take note when he decided to level the playing field as never before. There is little doubt that he reminded the EC that it had powers inherently enshrined in Article 324 of the Constitution — powers so great that there is arguably no other electoral management body with similar powers.
I learned this during my years as Election Commissioner, and these are the powers I exercised during the course of the 15th general election in 2009; I was successfully able to confront three Congress-ruled State governments and one Congress ally too. One of them even convened a special press conference to declare that his government would move the Supreme Court against the EC’s “arbitrariness”, but I personally had no doubt about its outcome. As it happened, he chose not to in the end.
The point I seek to make, by virtue of my own experience, is that the powers of the EC are so enormous and so all-encompassing that they exceed the powers of the executive in all election-related issues during the course of the election period. Of course, these must be exercised judiciously, fairly and equitably, not least because every decision is analysed in every “adda”, every home, every street corner and every “dhaba” across the country, where the EC’s decisions must be seen to be fair and transparent. During the years precedent to becoming CEC, I was fortunate that Mr. Seshan advised me whenever I called on him. As a result I never felt any need to make reference to government or court, once the process was under way.
If there is anything for me to applaud thus far in this election, it is the decision made by two political parties which have selected over 33% women candidates — Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (41% for 42 Lok Sabha seats) and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (33% for 21 Lok Sabha seats). After years of patriarchy or at best lip service, these parties have taken a vital step towards empowering women politically.
Why Imran bats for Modi
By Ayesha Siddiqa |
It seems that people from very odd quarters — such as Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan — want Narendra Modi to win the upcoming elections. Khan’s recent comments, in which he desired victory for his counterpart as good for the future of a peace initiative, may be driven by pragmatic reasons, but it indicates the separation that exists between the two countries. Following comments by the Opposition and in segments of the social media, the federal information minister intervened and pretended that Khan, who can often open his mouth before engaging his brain, was misunderstood.
Intriguingly, despite India being the most significant country in the neighbourhood, its election outcomes have marginal impact on the region. Khan’s statement, in fact, indicates that disconnectedness in which the head of the government of a neighbouring state refused to measure the implications beyond tactical effect. It seems a right-wing government in India does not matter to Pakistan. Or, perhaps, a Modi-led right-wing government is a wish come true for the ideological right-wing in Pakistan. For the first time since 1947, people do not have to convince each other of how right Muhammad Ali Jinnah was in creating Pakistan: Not that Pakistan was ever designed for all Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, but it now sees its formula for ideological nationalism justified in the face of rising religious-ideological nationalism next door in India. I have lived through the times when Pakistan’s intelligentsia was confused in the face of Indian secularism and democracy. Despite having their own country, there would be an internal conversation about the Indian experiment being better. The last four to five years has brought about a change in that thinking.
The BJP leadership of the last five years cannot be held entirely responsible for all the political and sociological change. If anything, the last four years have helped expose the true colours of the rising Indian middle-class that does not necessarily think very differently from the Hindutva supporter on certain issues. There is no sign that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi would have the gumption to change the course of society. Hearing the young Congress leader speak at a university in London, he did not seem to possess the temerity to deviate markedly from the ideological path that the BJP has chosen for India. However, there is an opinion in Pakistan that a Congress-led government, or any dispensation other than the present formulation, may be more cautious in how it approaches issues in the region.
Meanwhile, the general sense is that with Modi at the helm of affairs, war and conflict will mark the tone of relations between the two countries. However, this would be beneficial for Pakistan’s nationalist project that gets strengthened with every news of mob lynching of Muslims and other minorities, from India. This is not to argue that the state of minorities in Pakistan is any better: But New Delhi no longer represents a secular ideal. For Islamabad, a non-secular India is easier to contest.
The only limitation that Pakistan faces in fighting a BJP-led India is its own internal problems, like the dearth of financial resources, and not the intent. This also means that conflict cannot remain the only shrill refrain: A resolution would have to be negotiated for which the establishment in Rawalpindi prefers a BJP-governed India. Khan’s statement basically means that he, and others who share his thinking, believe that a strong right-wing government is the only credible element with which Pakistan could settle its matters. The question then is, what happened after the Lahore declaration? Wasn’t it a BJP-government that was willing to talk peace? Or, what happened to the peace initiative between the A B Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf governments?
Seen purely from the Pakistani establishment’s perspective, Kargil happened because the military wanted an equaliser at a time when the political government had not taken it into confidence. As far as the breakdown of talks at Agra are concerned, the right-wing in India was divided at the time and the segment represented by L K Advani did not want peace. For Rawalpindi, Modi represents a neat synthesis of India’s right-wing. Hence, the negotiations would be more comprehensive than ever before. The only problem, however, remains that how does one predict Pakistan’s deep state — whose contours, today, are even more difficult to define.
This understanding goes hand in hand with the thinking that the pragmatism of the Hindu right-wing would not stop Delhi from talking to Pakistan despite the latter’s habitual U-turn from peace initiatives. While the emphasis following most track-II dialogues, particularly after a bilateral crisis, is on the Indian members of the group to apprise their counterparts of the anger in India, the Pakistani side has always maintained that it is possible to pick up the conversation thread from where it was dropped. A decade into this behaviour, there is barely anyone on Pakistan’s side with the capacity to remind their own the highly problematic nature of this approach.
Not unlike today’s India, the cost of dissent in Pakistan is very high. There is little traction in the corridors of power towards an alternative approach to resolving the conflict. The deep state in Pakistan — which is not necessarily the entire military, but is symbolised by it — has gained excessive control of all discussions and dialogue. There is also the confidence that international and regional geopolitics allows Rawalpindi the opportunity to continue with its old approach. Money matters are critical, but it will not force a course correction unless Pakistan reaches a breaking point.
The Violent Misuse of a Sacred Symbol
By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee
A friend had pointed it out to me, in an Arya Samaj Mandir. It was more than a decade ago, when a roommate in JNU, who hailed from Haryana, was entering into an inter-caste marriage with his long-time, Bengali girlfriend. The wedding was taking place against the wishes of their respective parents. There were only friends from the university, who were present to take part in the couple’s happiness. Such is the price of love, in a society where the celebration of “family values” and “religious values” have for generations, meant the celebration of patriarchy, caste interest, and economic interests. It inevitably meant the refusal to accept, the free laws of love. We were in the middle of the short ceremony when my friend drew my attention to a poetic line written on the wall: “Om means a thousand things. One of them is, welcome to the abode of the gods.”
Growing up in a Hindu household, I was of course aware of the symbol. It used to be drawn in red, on small urns made of copper, and placed before a deity. On the urn, Dūrvā (or Darbha, or Kusha) grass would be dipped in water. The Dūrvā grass comprises of three blades, which symbolises the sacred trinity for Hindus. Om, I slowly learnt, was considered the primordial sound, the sacred syllable, that would precede all chanting. The word has been associated with cosmic significance in the Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig Veda, as something that connects the liberated human spirit with the universe, as “essence of breath, life, everything that exists”.
It shook me from inside, to see the photograph of the Om symbol, being violently engraved on the back of a man I learnt is Nabbir, an undertrial Muslim prisoner in Tihar jail. Nabbir was forcibly marked and denied food for two days on April 12, allegedly by the jail superintendent. This is not just a terrible incident, but marks of a sickness that can quickly, if unchecked and not punished by law, spread into a fascist method of torture and humiliation. This is a bizarre act of classifying a non-Hindu victim.
It is necessary to pay attention to what is taking place in this incident. A language of horror is being established through this act of power. By engraving the symbol, the Muslim prisoner’s body was robbed of its sovereignty. Sovereignty here is political in the religious sense. The invisible presence of the sacred exists in the prisoner’s body. The marking of the Hindu symbol on his back, is a violation of the prisoner’s sacred world, where the meaning of sacred becomes territorial. The body is no longer the body of a man who can exist within his ‘human rights’, despite his lack of political rights as a prisoner.
What is ‘human’ within the man’s belief system is intrinsically his ability to exist as a man who belongs to a god. It is a spiritual relationship that belongs to the realm of another law, where governmental power is marked off, and ideally has no control over. What has occurred in this case is precisely this ‘human’ breach between governmental power and sacred power. The superintendent did not limit himself to the task of holding juridical authority over his prisoner. That limit was overcome by a violent superimposition of another authority (or power) that the superintendent had no right to use over the prisoner.
The act of marking a Muslim prisoner’s back with a Hindu symbol is not a sacred but a territorial act, where the mis/use of power involves marking someone with sacred symbols as proof of dominance. The act of marking the prisoner’s shoulder with the sacred symbol that does not belong to the world he inhabits within, is to humiliate his inner sense of sacredness by deliberating implanting an alien symbol on his body. That symbol is also torn from its own sacred universe, and made to symbolise something territorial.
In the Tihar jail incident, everything is reduced to the trembling of a body, where the sacred is turned into a mark of horror. It is a space where everything corresponds to nothing, where symbols are reduced to bones, where the holy is reduced to what in the Book of Revelation (13: 16-17) is called “the mark… of the beast”. The “essence of breath, life and everything that exists”, what is symbolic of Om, is violently taken away from the prisoner. He is left to breathe, and live, only his humiliation.
Whether you believe or not in the human soul, we can name the soul as an invisible entity that remains in correspondence with something unnamable. It is this soul that all forms of barbaric power want to control and humiliate, in order to reduce the human to a nonhuman status. Even in the Germany of 1938, Jewish prisoners were marked by a yellow star, which was a perverted form of the Jewish Star of David. When history repeats itself, it is not just as tragic or farce, but sometimes pure horror.