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Unconvincing Apologia

The Accidental Prime Minister; Sanjaya Baru; Penguin books; Rs.599; Pages 285

“I HONESTLY BELIEVE that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, opposition parties in Parliament.”

Thus spake Dr. Manmohan Singh, India’s “accidental prime minister” of the past ten years. Unfortunately, this prediction is likely to be belied, even if amateur historians such as Sanjaya Baru, former editor of the Financial Express and Business Standard and incumbent director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, judge him kindly.

The plain truth is that perhaps no individual in the history of post-independence India was given so many chances and opportunities to work for the public good, build a firm foundation for the country’s growth and secure a place of honour in Indian history, than Dr. Manmohan Singh. Yet despite his excellent scholarship, academic experience and occupying every major economic office at the Centre, as governor of the Reserve Bank, stints in the World Bank and IMF, and two terms as prime minister, he blew them all. The only effective policy decision he is associated with is the late prime minister Narasimha Rao’s historic liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991. 

Yet so strong were his stars that in 2004 when against all expectation a Congress-led UPA coalition was voted to power in New Delhi on a wave of sympathy for Congress president Sonia Gandhi who determinedly fought the general election against a cocky BJP-led coalition, Manmohan Singh who had faded into comfortable obscurity, was pulled out of the mothballs and appointed prime minister. Shortly after being sworn in, for reasons which are not entirely clear, Singh appointed the author as his media adviser and as such a member of the PMO (prime minister’s office). This hurriedly written narrative is an insider’s account of Singh’s ten-year reign as the titular head of the UPA-I and II governments.

According to Baru, Manmohan Singh is a cerebral individual of great integrity and sagacity who built a strong foundation for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition during his first term as prime minister, despite sustained backseat driving by Sonia Gandhi. “The PM never questioned Sonia’s right as party president to influence portfolio allocations,” discloses Baru.  Therefore throughout his two-term tenure, Singh was obliged to accept envious old-fashioned lefties such as the late Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and A.K. Anthony not only as ministers with the best Raisina Hill portfolios, but also as members of the “core group” of the cabinet.

Singh’s great accomplishment, observes the author, was that despite running a 17-party coalition with a fractious cabinet, during his first term as PM he managed to run an efficient administration in which economic growth averaged almost 8 percent per year, inflation was under control, and the prime minister was greatly respected and honoured abroad.

Yet surprisingly, Baru who has filled several pages with trivia such as the pecking order and prized office accommodation in the PMO, fails to address the opposition argument that the high GDP growth recorded during the tenure of the UPA-I government was the overhang of prudent management of the economy during the preceding (1999-2004) term of the BJP-led NDA government.

Unctuous acceptance of the ‘greatness’ of Manmohan Singh merely because he made it to the top of the slippery pole, is a cloying characteristic of this narrative. Baru unquestioningly accepts Dr. Singh as an eminent globally-respected economist because he has held every major economic office in government. But far from being a qualification, this is an indictment, given the dismal performance of the high-potential Indian economy during the period 1950-91.

Similarly, Baru naively endorses the oft-proclaimed “unimpeachable personal integrity” of  Manmohan Singh. Yet the inconvenient truth is that despite playing a major role in miring the economy in the hell-hole of the Hindu rate of growth for over four decades, the good doctor wangled plum postings for himself in the World Bank, IMF, and Asian Development Bank,   institutions which he served without distinction, but from whom he derives handsome dollar denominated pensions multiplied manifold by repeated devaluations of the rupee for which Singh exhibited considerable enthusiasm during his stints as finance and prime minister.Whether he is an individual of intellectual and moral integrity — turning a blind eye to the blatant corruption of his cabinet colleagues — is a doubtful proposition.

Although Baru clearly admires his subject and finds fault with Sonia Gandhi for imposing loyalists of doubtful integrity and competence upon the PM’s cabinet, he stops short of too much exaltation, painting Singh as weak and vacillating, with a penchant for the soft option. That’s why the UPA-II government comprised several maverick ministers who ran amok, transforming it into perhaps the most corrupt in free India’s history.

Curiously despite being an eminent economist-journalist, the author has side-stepped the great issues of the past ten years and the Congress party’s failure to address them which has proved to be its nemesis.  It would be too much to expect of Baru — an insider of the Delhi establishment cocooned from the misery and anguish that the lay population suffered during the wasted UPA and Manmohan decade — to be concerned about issues such as public education and health.

But surprisingly, he has also no comment to offer on the Amartya Sen-Arvind Panagariya growth versus equity debate or on the causes of the persistent inflation which ruined hundreds of millions of lives during the past decade. Most of this hurriedly written apologia contains gossip and trivia penned by an individual who seems to be over-awed by the trappings of the Delhi durbar.
Dilip Thakore

Balanced account

Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis; Paranjoy Guha Thakurta with Subir Ghosh & Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri authors upfront; Rs.695; Pages 570

No Indian businessman of the 20th century can match the incredible rags-to-riches success story of Dhirubhai Ambani (1932-2002), a former petrol-pump attendant who within three decades transformed his flagship company Reliance Industries Ltd into India’s largest private conglomerate (revenue: Rs.428,000 crore in fiscal 2013-14).

An amoral master in the art of beguiling politicians and managing the country’s then notorious licence-permit-quota regime, Dhirubhai built an industrial and financial empire, second only to the mighty Tatas in a remarkably short time-frame.

However, Gas Wars is not so much about Dhirubhai Ambani’s rise to fame and fortune, as about the feud between his two sons. Dhirubhai’s empire, almost until his death in July 2002, was based on textiles and synthetic fibres. His elder, and clearly favoured son Mukesh, diversified into petrochemicals — petroleum refining as well as oil and gas exploration. Dhirubhai died intestate and two years later, the uneasy relationship between his two sons came out in the open when Mukesh publicly admitted that there were “ownership issues” between them.

For three years after Dhirubhai’s death the feud between the two brothers continued in the courts, press, and through inspired leaks. On June 18, 2005, a private settlement was brokered by their mother, Kokilaben, and former chairman of ICICI, K.V. Kamath. A family memorandum of understanding (MoU) was also signed under which Mukesh was awarded the energy and petroleum business, while Anil got power, financial services and telecommunications. According to this book, Mukesh got the better deal. In particular, he received what he had started, the energy sector, though this later became the main bone of contention.

“While many reasons have been attributed to the split in the family,” the authors write, “the battle between the Ambani brothers was largely about wresting control over the reserves of natural gas that are below the ocean bed along the basin of the two great rivers of southern India” — the Krishna/Godavari basin, off the coast of Andhra Pradesh. This is the subject matter of this book, backed by a plethora of facts and figures.

Until early 1990s, exploration and production of gas and oil was dominated by the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Oil India Ltd (OIL). Then in 2002, RIL moved into this domain with the discovery of what was labelled the “world’s largest natural gas reserves” in the KG basin. The brothers were still nominally united and in their later, mother-brokered settlement, it was agreed that Mukesh would supply gas to a power plant touted to be the biggest in the world that Anil was planning to set up at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh and to the public sector National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) at a price of $2.34 per million British thermal units (mmbtu) for 17 years.

This agreement transformed into a great disagreement between the  brothers. With Mukesh also committed to supply KG basin gas to the public sector NTPC, the Central government was dragged into the dispute and a variety of the issues raised have still not been resolved.

Who has “sovereign rights” over natural resources — coal, iron ore, oil and gas — of a country? Most would say, the nation — in other words, the people. But when a specific area is given, or auctioned by the government to a private party, how is the price of the natural resource that is extracted to be determined? The issue becomes especially complicated where oil and gas are concerned, since the cost of oil and gas exploration, as well as production, varies from place to place.

There is yet another factor — “gold-plating” — the practice of inflating the cost of extraction to demand higher prices for the oil or gas extracted. By charging higher unforeseen costs, the contracted price of $2.34 per mmbtu was renegotiated and raised to $4.20, in 2010, raising a nationwide outcry from various guardians of the public interest.

Though an increase from $2 to $4.2 per mmbtu may sound small, in actuality tens of thousands of crores are at stake, argue the authors. For instance if Anil Ambani is supplied natural gas at the agreed family-settlement price of $2.34 per mmbtu for 17 years and if he was to sell it at $4.2 he would earn a humungous profit of Rs.350,000 crore! With such huge sums of money at stake, little wonder that the ongoing feud between the two Ambani brothers has been so ferocious. Since the government allocated the blocks in question in the KG basin to Mukesh and is also a buyer via NTPC, it has also become deeply involved in the brothers’ dispute.

To its credit, the book gives ample space to spokespersons of Mukesh Ambani. It extensively cites extracts from the recent report of an expert committee headed by Dr. Chakravarti Rangarajan, a respected economist and former chairman of the Reserve Bank, which recommended an even higher $8.4 based on an average of global prices. This was confirmed by the Cabinet in June 2013, the price rise to be effective from April 1, 2014 (but postponed due to the general election).

Given that the authors have written a balanced account of this complex issue, it’s surprising — indeed shocking — that a legal notice has been served by RIL on the authors and the distributor for “defamation”. Four years of painstaking research has gone into this enlightening volume whose main author is a respected academic, writer and journalist. Gas Wars is investigative reporting and analysis at its best, and RIL’s suppression of it is deplorable.
Rahul Singh

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