NEW DELHI | 22nd Jan
Illustration By:- Sandeep Adhwaryu
Spin and secrecy are in the DNA of India's ruling Nehru-Gandhi family, which is why few have access to the real (as distinct from the stated) reasons behind changes in personnel. Even discounting conspiracy theories, the media battering that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been enduring since the latter half of 2010 — or a year after Harish Khare took over as media advisor to the PM — may have been reason enough to warrant a change. However, performance has never stood a chance against loyalty and political utility in the calculus of UPA personnel changes, hence the credence given to whispers that it was a lost laptop that finally derailed one of the capital's most clued-in political journalists. If individuals within a key department of the Government of India are to be believed, the purloining of Khare's car, mobile telephone and laptop six months ago was "not a random act of burglary, but a well-thought and executed plan" to get details of his personal emails, "that had been unmonitored till then". According to these sources, the emails showed disillusionment with the higher leadership of the Congress, which (or so Khare was claimed to believe) "had been preventing the PM from setting things right" by getting rid of corrupt bureaucrats. Such changes "took place only after facing down (political) pressure to retain them", and were often swiftly reversed.
That Harish Khare was no admirer of the political (as distinct from the administrative) wing of the UPA, was no secret. He had even gone public with criticism of the way that the UPA was functioning a year after joining the Prime Minister's Office. Indeed, given that he was closest to Sitaram Kesri, the Congress functionary who was pushed aside in 1997 to accommodate Sonia Gandhi as AICC president, it was clear that Khare was not among the handful of Delhi scribes who were close to 10 Janpath. However, he had made up for this by keeping in touch with the next best person, Political Advisor Ahmed Patel. Unlike the much younger stars of prime-time television, Khare was from a generation that still regarded the Congress as a political party, or what it had been till the 1969 and 1978 splits which converted in into a family fief. More crucially, while he was liked by several of the politicians whom he covered, Khare had much less chemistry with fellow journalists, most of whom he knew personally and (perhaps as a consequence) saw with a degree of thinly-veiled contempt. Unlike those media persons who have made a lucrative career out of news and newsmakers, Khare has remained tethered to his salary, not venturing beyond his middle-class origins into the world of the upper class that so many celebrity journalists in Delhi have reached.
Khare's predecessor, Sanjaya Baru, too was known to be less than popular with the Congress president, who apparently could not bring herself to trust the judgement of a man so effusive about P.V. Narasimha Rao. That Baru was loyal to Manmohan Singh and not to 10 Janpath, rankled those tasked with "protecting the interests" of the Congress president. Had these politicians had their way, Baru would have gone well before he finally bid adieu in August 2008, or less than a year before elections were due, as well as the question of Manmohan Singh's re-nomination as PM. To his credit, his skills in business journalism and an anodyne manner helped convince most scribes that it was not Manmohan Singh who was responsible for the policy disasters of UPA I, but the Communists, the hacks within the Congress, the regional parties, the weather. Everyone and everything except Manmohan Singh, who had replaced Narasimha Rao as the object of Baru's admiration. Seeing that the lack of empathy for him in 10 Janpath would block a second term for him, Baru left on a high note, with the PM's image still intact. His replacement was neither a Manmohan nor a Sonia favourite, but got selected on the basis of his performance as Chief of Bureau of the Hindu. It was regarded by the PM's official family that Khare's qualities as a top-class political reporter would ensure a smooth run for him in the new job. Unfortunately, these were not qualities that made him popular with his peers in the journalistic profession.
Had Manmohan Singh seen UPA II as what it was, a final hurrah, and sought to push through economic reform the way he did the nuclear deal, Khare may have succeeded in preventing the swelling firestorm of negative stories about a PM seen as unwilling or unable to face up to his own party or quit. However, the PM continued to hew to the line of least resistance, no matter that this meant that the policy options he favoured were shredded in favour of schemes that he knew would cause long-term economic pain. His obstinacy over the nuclear deal seemed to have been a one-off. Manmohan Singh just would not resist pressure that made nonsense of his reputation as an economic reformer. But perhaps he could not.
Located just a few rooms away from the Prime Minister, the new media advisor could see for himself the political constraints and pressures that Singh operated with. His refusal to join those of his fraternity who profitably mixed journalism with politics kept Khare apart from the media stars close to the UPA leadership. His own understated but acerbic views, often expressed with dark humour, did not help loyalists of the Congress president to believe that Khare had transferred to Sonia Gandhi the warm feelings he had had for Kesri. The re-joining of Pulok Chatterjee (the civil servant most trusted by Sonia Gandhi) as the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister made Khare's position untenable. He had to be replaced with someone who could be trusted to fulfil the mandate of those close to the Congress president, and that is to smoothen the way for Rahul Gandhi to become the occupant of the room that three members of his family have occupied to date. Khare was unprepared — and perhaps unwilling — to work with zeal at the task of ensuring a transition from Manmohan to Rahul. He had to go.
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