Top critical review
A White Knight's Tale
19 October 2018
Sanjaya Baru was media adviser to PM Manmohan Singh from 2004 to 2008 in UPA-I. When UPA-II returned to power, he was called back from his teaching job in Singapore by the PM with the intention of re-appointing him in an advisory role, but that was apparently axed by unknown people either in the Congress party or in the PMO. Baru thus has an axe to grind, and this book is certainly no hack-job.
In his telling, he is the PM's sword and shield in UPA-I, going beyond the call of duty to help him navigate a treacherous world where there is a schemer seemingly behind every door. The way he writes it, even normal politicking and factionalism in the Congress party takes on dark undertones. This makes for good reading, but one wouldn't go so far as to call it a "balanced" view. Baru intends to be seen as taking up the cudgels on behalf of PM Singh, to present a thesis on the source of the problems that plagued UPA-II (note that UPA-II itself is not covered here.) But in doing so it only confirms the prevailing media narrative of the time, and perhaps that is why it was received so well when it came out in 2014 (just before the elections). Baru wanted his boss to be something that he was not, that he did not have much intention of being, and that he could not possibly have been considering the circumstances; this is the source of all of Baru's disappointment, and of what he calls a "tragedy".
However, once you move away from the central thread, there are a few other more interesting things that are also covered. This may have been unintentional, but in the first few chapters, you get an idea of just how incestuous are the power circles in New Delhi. Everybody seems to know everybody else's dad. To the aam aadmi of suspicious bearing such as oneself, marooned from centres of power, it does tend to look like a pseudo-oligarchy, although a very well-educated one. There are also tidbits about the pushes and pulls of managing a coalition government, and on the various personalities that studded the firmament of UPA-I. One wishes there was more of this. Finally, it is the personality of the PM himself that makes the book worth reading. History, as he once said, will certainly be a kinder judge to him than the media (or the media adviser, for that matter.)
Does this book read like a "thriller"? No, unless all the thrillers you read are political memoirs by economist-editors. Does it present anything new that someone who reads the papers regularly wouldn't know? No, not really. Does the author make judgments and assumptions? Yes. But if you enjoy reading about politics, or had an interest in UPA-I, then sure, this will do just fine, if taken with a grain of salt.