Page last updated at 14:04 GMT, Monday, 11 May 2009 15:04 UK

Viewpoint: India's 'iron fist in a velvet glove'

Sanjaya Baru, former media adviser to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, says left-wing parties were far closer to agreeing a nuclear deal between India and the US last year than previously realised. In the end hardline left-wingers scuppered the compromise and the Left withdrew from the ruling coalition, Mr Baru says. He also reveals the anxiety surrounding Mr Singh's visit to Kashmir in 2005. Here he shares details of key moments during Mr Singh's time in office.


Even on the nuclear agreement - by which American companies can sell nuclear reactors, fuel and technology to India - the prime minister was willing to let the Left front take credit for securing a final agreement that was in the nation's interests!

Protests against the Indian nuclear deal
Officially, the communists opposed the nuclear deal

This was a compromise formula communicated to the prime minister by a senior Left leader.

When the final 123 Agreement between India and the US was made a public document, one view within the Left front was that they should take credit by claiming that they had helped secure a better outcome than what the prime minister was capable of securing from the Americans.

"We will say that it is our stand in parliament that forced the government to negotiate a better agreement," they were saying.

"This way we can support the agreement and at the same time be seen distancing ourselves from the Congress and the prime minister."

If this view had prevailed in the higher councils of the Left front, Mr Singh's government would have served its full term with no problem.

At least one senior Left leader - who had said to Manmohan Singh when he took charge as prime minister, "I assure you of our support for a full five-year term" - wanted to go along with this compromise formula so that he could keep his word.

Clearly, Mr Singh was willing to stoop to conquer. But when this compromise formula was rejected by the hardliners in the Left, he had no option but to show the iron fist in his velvet glove.

Never under-estimate the determination of a self-made man!


As we prepared to leave for Srinagar (the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir), where he would inaugurate the first Srinagar-Muzaffarabad passenger bus service, news broke of a terrorist attack on the tourist complex in Srinagar.

The encounter between terrorists and security forces took its toll.

Kashmiri villagers walk past a road sign showing the distance to Muzaffarabad
Mr Singh was determined that the bus route should go ahead

The rest of the day and evening was spent trying to assess the situation and decide whether the prime minister and Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi would fly next morning to Srinagar or not.

It was possible that an even bigger attack had been planned for the next day.

In the evening the home minister and all senior security officials, including the national security adviser, chiefs of intelligence agencies and others gathered at the official home of the prime minister.

The consensus was that the bus service launch should be postponed.

Even as the meeting progressed the prime minister received phone calls from senior cabinet colleagues and some chief ministers expressing their concern for his safety and that of Mrs Gandhi.

She called the PM and told him that she would go by his advice and decision.

Advice against going ahead with the programme kept pouring in - almost no one in authority could guarantee the 100% safety of the PM.

After landing at Srinagar airport he would have to travel to the venue of the public meeting either by road or helicopter.

Terrorists could attack anywhere. The weather was playing truant. It could rain. Which meant the helicopter ride would be difficult.

Going by road would require a security clampdown of an order that the PM did not favour.

Deeply worried

"I can not impose a curfew in Srinagar and then go to launch a bus service!" an angry PM said when someone suggested that option.

At the end of a long evening the official advice was, "postpone the event".

One by one all the ministers and officers left. The PM was tired and looked deeply worried.

I sat with him alone for a few minutes in complete silence. The TV in the room was on, showing the day's destruction in Srinagar.

Fire, gun shots, a building burnt, people crying. We stared at the TV without a word.

After what seemed like ages he spoke. "I will go," he said, and asked his secretary to connect him to Mrs Gandhi.

"I don't want to postpone tomorrow's programme" he told her, "I will go."

She agreed, and said she would go too. I rushed out to inform the media.


More often than not Mr Singh would get his way through patient consultation.

Manmohan Singh
Mr Singh would 'keep everyone in the loop'

There is no major decision I am aware of on which he had not consulted his senior colleagues and senior coalition leaders.

There is of course the institution of the weekly Friday meeting of the Congress Party's "Core Group".

The group included the PM, the Congress president and a handful of senior party leaders. It would meet every Friday.

But apart from this formal consultation, he would be on the telephone with leaders like Karunanidhi, Sharad Pawar and Laloo Prasad to keep them informed on every major decision and get their concurrence before acting.

His is a classic cabinet style of functioning. On major policy issues he would even keep the Left in the loop.

The downside of such a consultative process is, of course, that decision-making takes time and tough decisions don't always get taken.

But that is the price we pay for having diverse coalitions. There is a paradox in the liberal angst about politics and policy in India.

On the one hand we celebrate coalitions as a mirror of our diversity, on the other hand we want "tough" leaders who will impose their will.

Manmohan Singh's style of functioning reflects the genius of consensual policy-making in the era of coalitions when leaders stoop to conquer and soften their blows with velvet gloves!

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