The former Prime Minister, who turns 91 on September 26, outwitted both political allies and rivals to help end India’s “nuclear apartheid”.
India’s Prime Ministers have taken decisions that changed the course of the country’s history. Neerja Chowdhury, an award-winning journalist and political commentator, goes beyond the news headlines to provide an eye-opening account of how some of the most important political decisions in independent India were taken.
In How Prime Ministers Decide, the author analyses the operating styles of six of the country’s Prime Ministers through the prism of six decisions of historic significance. Based on hundreds of interviews that the author conducted with prime ministers, key figures in the political establishment, bureaucrats, aides, policymakers, and even fixers—the book provides remarkable insights that have been gleaned over forty years of high-level reporting on the national political scene.
In the final chapter of the book, Chowdhury writes about how the mild and professorial Manmohan Singh, widely regarded as one of the country’s weakest Prime Ministers, defied interest groups and foes within the political establishment to seal a historic nuclear deal with the United States—and upgraded the bilateral relationship to a new level. The following is an excerpt from the said chapter.
When Manmohan Singh became prime minister, the man he often turned to for help was CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet—despite the differences the PM had with the communists. Manmohan Singh had wanted Montek Singh Ahluwalia as finance minister. But Sonia Gandhi ruled that out—and selected P. Chidambaram instead.
The resourceful Surjeet helped Manmohan Singh. Ahluwalia became deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and was given cabinet rank. As a result, he could attend cabinet meetings—and be the PM’s eyes and ears. Given his proximity to the PM, there would be more cars of politicians and diplomats parked outside Yojana Bhavan than outside the PM’s residence.
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Before he took over as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Ahluwalia asked the PM if there was anyone in particular he wanted him to meet. Manmohan Singh told him to call on Surjeet. Ahluwalia met the eighty-eight-year old Comrade Surjeet who ‘offered me tea and biscuits’—not ‘disapproval’. The CPI(M) leaders were not happy with the appointment of Ahluwalia who had held a position in the IMF. They had asked Surjeet to intervene and stop it but by then it was too late.
The Congress leaders also looked askance at Ahluwalia’s appointment and would joke about the ‘Sardar to Sardar’ bonhomie which had swung the appointment. All three—Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and Harkishan Singh Surjeet—were Bhapa Sikhs, they would say snidely. The Ahluwalias, Montek and his eminent economist wife Isher Judge Ahluwalia, were long-time personal friends of Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur.
Manmohan Singh’s troubles with the Left started the moment Prakash Karat replaced Harkishan Singh Surjeet as general secretary of the CPI(M). Surjeet and Jyoti Basu, former chief minister of West Bengal, both top leaders of the CPI(M), had repeatedly assured Manmohan Singh of their support when he became PM in 2004. He would have no trouble from them, they would say—as long as the Congress adhered to the Common Minimum Programme.
After Surjeet stepped down from the leadership of the CPI(M), Karat was a thorn in the PM’s side. While Karat’s public persona was that of an ideologically unyielding tough negotiator, in person he was gentle—and a thorough gentleman. Karat was especially difficult to deal with on the Indo–US strategic relationship. Congress leaders found him the toughest nut to crack.
In the 2009 elections, the Congress Party came back to power with an increased majority. Ensuring the ‘Right to Work’ and a loan waiver to farmers worth Rs.75,000 crores had helped it beat back the anti-incumbency against the government. It managed to get 206 seats in the Lok Sabha, increasing its 2004 tally by 61 seats.
The Indo–US nuclear deal was not an issue in the polls which attracted voters. Few understood—or cared about it. But urban Indians approved of the way in which it had brought India closer to the US, which was a destination for many Indians. Manmohan Singh, who would go on to head the UPA for five more years, was admired for the way in which he had resolutely pursued the deal. His handling of the global financial crisis of 2007–09, and the rapid growth of the economy since 2004, had come in for acclaim by middle class Indians who had made good.
Electoral implications apart, the Indo–US Civil Nuclear Deal ended the ‘nuclear apartheid’ India had been subjected to for thirty years. There were not just the restrictions on nuclear commerce globally but also the ‘technological apartheid’ which had kicked into place as a result of sanctions. The deal enabled India to buy fuel, reactors, equipment, and technology from other countries. There was a shortage of uranium in the country and many of the nuclear reactors were running at 40-55 per cent capacity. The opening up of nuclear trade helped India stockpile uranium for each of the civilian reactors that were put under the IAEA’s safeguards.
After the deal, India has been able to buy uranium from Russia, Canada, Kazakhstan, and other countries. According to the scientists, this has made the situation comfortable for India’s nuclear programme, both civilian and strategic.
Manmohan Singh’s government was unlike any other that existed before or after. No full-term, rather two-term, prime minister was as hemmed in as he was. Sonia Gandhi took the political decisions and had a say in major policy initiatives. The PM let Pranab Mukherjee, another powerful figure in the government, run much of the administration through key decision-making bodies like scores of GOMs. As a result, Manmohan Singh’s authority was severely curtailed, and he worked under constraints.
Could Manmohan Singh have asserted himself more as prime minister despite the fact that he owed his position to Sonia Gandhi, and the model of coalition that called for power sharing with her? For Sonia needed him as much as he needed her.
That however was not his persona. He preferred to be a blade of grass which bends when the storm comes, rather than the tree which stands up straight and falls. That is why he lasted for ten years. But in the process, the authority of the prime minister took a beating—and though upright and sincere, he was seen as among the weak prime ministers India has had. And yet, the resourcefulness, tenacity, and determination Manmohan Singh displayed in pursuing the Indo–US Civil Nuclear Deal revealed a new side to him.
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Over the more than three years it took to conclude the deal, he displayed traits and political savvy that few imagined he possessed. He took on formidable opponents across the political spectrum—and managed to best them, or win them over to his side. He took enormous risks, putting his government in jeopardy, showed an understanding of the political system in India, displayed a keen knowledge of geopolitics and foreign policy—and demonstrated that he could get his way. This underrated prime minister managed to pull off the unlikeliest of triumphs.
Excerpted with permission of Aleph Book Company from How Prime Ministers Decide by Neerja Chowdhury.