Thursday, April 24, 2014

The PM, journalists, and the nuclear deal:SANJAYA BARU

The PM, journalists, and the nuclear deal
‘When Ram left, Dr Singh sat back in his chair looking completely satisfied. He had crossed the rubicon, he thought.’ Three senior journalists figured in the events as they played out in August 2007, recounts SANJAYA BARU
Posted/Updated Wednesday, Apr 23 14:35:24, 2014
Book Extract 
The Accidental Prime Minister—The Making And Unmaking of Manmohan Singh
Sanjaya Baru
Penguin/Viking 2014
Pages: 301 pages, Price: Rs 599
Finally, on 3 August 2007, the government was able to make public the 123 Agreement. After a careful reading of the agreement, N. Ram, chief editor of The Hindu and a sceptic on the deal, wrote a full-page editorial comment under the headline 'A Sound and Honourable 123'. He wrote enthusiastically. 

'It is a sound and honourable agreement and the assurances provided to Parliament by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 have been fulfilled virtually in their entirety,' said the editorial. The editorial criticized the BJP for raising ill-informed objections. 'The Manmohan Singh government has won for India the keys to unshackle its nuclear programme from the unfair restrictions it has been subjected to for the past 33 years.' 

On reading the editorial, I called Ram and thanked him on Dr Singh's behalf. He sounded ecstatic and was full of praise for the PM. 'Tell the prime minister he has made history!' 

I suggested that he should tell that to him personally. Ram agreed to fly down the same day from Chennai. After checking with Dr Singh, I invited Ram to have breakfast with the prime minister the next day. For more than an hour over breakfast, Ram waxed eloquent on the deal, calling it a great achievement for India and a great political coup for the PM. 

When Ram left, Dr Singh sat back in his chair looking completely satisfied. He had crossed the rubicon, he thought. Ram was a close friend of Prakash Karat, and himself a long-standing member of the CPM. Dr Singh took Ram's endorsement as a signal from the Left that it would not attack the deal. Rarely had I seen Dr Singh so pleased, so at peace, so content as he was that morning. 

An hour or so later Ram called me at my office in South Block. Right after his breakfast meeting with the PM, he had gone off to meet Karat. 

'Sanjaya, I have bad news. The Left will not support the 123 Agreement. They will ask the government to put the negotiations on hold.'

This came as a shock. Ram agreed it was so, and said he, too, was surprised. He had spent some time explaining the benefits of the deal to Karat but the latter, he said, was not interested. 

'He has taken a political decision,' said Ram. 'It is not about the merits of the deal, but the politics. You have to tell the PM that he should put the deal on hold. Karat will be making a statement asking the government not to operationalize the deal.'

I rushed to RCR to deliver the message to the PM. While driving down I called Sitaram Yechury to seek an explanation. He confirmed Ram's account and said this was Karat's decision and would have to be ratified by the politburo. Yechury sounded displeased and helpless. It was he who had read out in the Rajya Sabha the famous 'red lines' to the government on what would be acceptable to the Left. He agreed now that the 123 Agreement had offered reassurance on every one of the issues raised by the Left and DAE officials. Neither Ram's friendship nor Shivshankar's equations, nor indeed Yechury's best efforts, would come in the way of Karat's decision.

A couple of days later, Dr Singh met Manini Chatterjee of the Telegraph (Kolkata) in his room in Parliament. She had just taken charge as the Telegraph's Delhi bureau chief and wanted to meet the PM. It was a courtesy call, not an interview, but it turned into one. The prime minister, still angry, was in a talkative mood and was willing to be candid while replying to her questions on the Left's demand. As his remarks became more and more interesting and newsy, Manini realized she had a front-page story. She sought the PM's permission to quote him and report his views. He looked at me. I told him that if he truly felt this way, he owed it to the nation to make his views known. This was an important issue on which his critics were freely offering their criticism. He should not remain silent, I said.

Dr Singh agreed to allow Manini to report what he said. He only insisted that since she had not recorded his remarks on tape she should clear the text of her report with me before its publication. Manini and I sat in an anteroom and shared our notes. She then went to her office, typed out her story and emailed it to me. It was an accurate report and 
I gave her the green signal.

Next morning, on Saturday 11 August, the Telegraph ran the headline 'Anguished PM to Left: If You Want to Withdraw, So Be It'. The report said, 'Tired of the Left parties' constant bark, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh dared them to bite after their latest diatribe against the Indo-US nuclear deal.' It quoted Dr Singh as saying, 'I told them it is not possible to renegotiate the deal. It is an honourable deal, the Cabinet has approved it, we cannot go back on it. I told them to do whatever they want to do. If they want to withdraw support, so be it.'

The news report sent shock waves around Delhi. Narayanan and Nair called me to find out if the report was accurate. They were not aware of the PM's meeting with Manini, which had taken place in Parliament House while they themselves were in South Block. It is also possible that neither was as aware of the PM's anger and anguish as I had been. 

They reported that the Congress party's leadership was unhappy with the interview and might want the PM to issue a denial. Since the PM's statements were not taped, felt Narayanan, it should be possible to issue a denial. I was appalled by that line of argument, but kept silent. It occurred to me that they, along with Congress party functionaries, might have already decided to get the PM to issue a denial and to put the blame on me for what Manini had written. I realized that the prime minister might come under pressure from his party, and was not sure what he would do. I returned to my room, read through my own notes of what exactly the PM had said and waited for the summons.

Several journalists called to say that the Congress party was planning to deny the story, saying Dr Singh never issued any such ultimatum to the Left. One senior journalist called to tell me that Ahmed Patel had said to him, 'How can Doctor Saheb issue any such ultimatum to the Left? He did not bring them into an alliance with us, so he cannot ask them to go.'


While the diplomats had done India proud, negotiating a historic agreement, India's politicians let the country down. The hypocrisy of the Left was exposed by the somersault Ram had to perform on the editorial pages of The Hindu. After proclaiming the 123 Agreement 'sound and honourable', he followed up with an editorial a few days later, toeing Karat's line and advising the government to put the deal on hold. And Yechury, who had privately agreed that the PM had done what he had promised to, publicly criticized him. 


On 12 October 2007, both Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh spoke at the Hindustan Times Summit. In response to pre-approved questions that Vir Sanghvi posed to Sonia, she said the survival of the government took precedence over the nuclear deal and while the Congress would continue to try and win over the Left it would do nothing to force the issue and risk a break with the Left.

Dr Singh watched her remarks live on television at 7 RCR. As soon as her session was over, the PM's carcade left for Taj Palace Hotel where Dr Singh was scheduled as the second speaker. 

In a pointed question, the newspaper's editorial director, Vir Sanghvi, asked him, 'You made a statement to a newspaper which was a bit out of sync with your persona and that started all the controversy. Do you think you overstepped a bit?'

Dr Singh responded with uncharacteristic firmness, 'I don't think I overstepped. I was responding to a public statement issued by the four Left parties and I don't think I overstepped. I am quite conscious of my responsibilities and what I should say and what I should not say.'

However, fully aware of what Sonia had said before him, the PM parried questions on the nuclear deal, saying his government was not a 'one-issue government' and 'one has to live with certain disappointments . . . If the deal does not come through, that is not the end of life.'
Reprinted with permission from Penguin/Viking

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