Ex-aide: Sonia pulled the strings in Singh's govt

NEW DELHI - A former trusted aide of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has embarrassed the ruling Congress with a tell-all book that, among other things, claims that party president Sonia Gandhi - and not Dr Singh - influenced key government decisions and Cabinet appointments.

In fact, The Accidental Prime Minister - The Making And Unmaking Of Manmohan Singh, published last Friday, says the Prime Minister was often pushed into a corner and his authority undermined.

The author, Dr Sanjaya Baru, was the Prime Minister's media adviser from 2004 to 2008.

In his book, he alleges that bureaucrat Pulok Chatterjee, who is principal secretary to the Prime Minister and a Gandhi family loyalist, had "regular, almost daily, meetings with Sonia" and would "brief her on the key policy issues of the day and seek her instructions on important files to be cleared by the PM".

The book comes at a bad time for the Congress, which is believed to be heading towards one of its worst drubbings ever in an Indian election. Anger has been high over a series of corruption scandals.

Though it is well-known that the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi is the power centre in the party and government, this is the first time a former insider has revealed details of how the office of the prime minister was allegedly undermined.

Dr Baru was also a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore in 2008. He returned to India from Singapore on the promise of a job at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) during the Congress government's second stint, but was instead offered a post in the Planning Commission, which he declined, said reports.

The PMO called the book's allegations that files had been taken to Mrs Gandhi "completely baseless and mischievous".

"It is categorically denied that any PMO file has ever been shown to... Sonia Gandhi," a PMO statement said. "It is an attempt to misuse a privileged position and access to high office to gain credibility and to apparently exploit it for commercial gain. The commentary smacks of fiction and coloured views of a former adviser."

The Press Trust of India, an Indian news agency, quoted unnamed sources as saying that Dr Singh was very upset with the book and felt he had been "stabbed in the back".

Dr Singh, 81, who has not been seen much in the election campaign but is set to address a few rallies, came to power in 2004 after Mrs Gandhi decided she did not want the job following a vicious opposition campaign over her Italian roots. She deferred to Dr Singh, a former finance minister who helped open up the economy that put India on the path to high growth.

Dr Baru, who praised Dr Singh's credentials as an economist, wrote that the Prime Minister told him the system of two power centres could not work and he had "to accept that the party president is the centre of power".

The Prime Minister's low profile, he wrote, was seen as "a defence mechanism, part shyness and part self-preservation" in the first term but in the second term as "escapism, as shirking responsibility and an unwillingness to take charge".

Reactions to the book came quickly. "Has Sanjaya Baru spilt the beans or has he spoilt the has-beens?" asked Indian economist Bibek Debroy.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley tweeted: "Sanjaya Baru only confirms what the whole nation knew. The office of the PM was systematically diminished."

But Dr Baru told the Indian media that he had given a "balanced account" of his time in the PMO.

"The media has picked up only specific portions from the book. The book is very balanced. It has some criticism as well as some appreciation," he told television channel CNN IBN.

Congress watchers said that the memoirs would further reinforce the image of a weak government.

"Since it's an insider's account, it is going to reinforce that kind of belief that the dual power system did not work," said Mr Rasheed Kidwai, a journalist and author of books on the Congress. "It is embarrassing for the Congress but they have much bigger things to worry about, like Modi."

This article was published on April 13 in The Straits Times.

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