Towards the end of the UPA-2’s tenure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had in his third press conference stated with his signature humility and dignity that “history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the Opposition parties in Parliament”. A few months after what was to be the last press conference by a Prime Minister ever since, his former media adviser came out with a book whose first half of the title was factually correct, whereas the latter part carried the inherent subjectivity of the author — The Accidental Prime Minister: The making and unmaking of Manmohan Singh. The author, who was handpicked by Dr Manmohan Singh and served as his media adviser from 2004 to 2008, came out with his memoir, ominously a few months before the parliamentary elections in April-May 2014. Ironically, the film based on the same book was released in January 2019, also a few months before the next general election. A coincidence perhaps, but the political ramifications for the protagonist of the book and his political party can only be one-dimensional — that is, negative.
Even then, Dr Manmohan Singh is believed to have been “hurt” with the implied “betrayal”, and the official statement from the PMO when the book was released was more elaborate. It said: “It is an attempt to misuse a privileged position.” The author expectedly disagreed with the reaction, and still insisted that his attempt was on the contrary to show the protagonist as a “human being” as he wanted “there to be empathy for him”! The ground reality and the undeniable fact was that the book and its contents were extensively used to show the man in a particular light, as indeed has been the case with its subsequent movie adaptation. Any narrative to suggest objectivity or naivety of intent needs to account for the unusual episode of a tweet of the movie trailer by an official political party handle.
As the din and excitement ebbed due to the drab performance of the recently-released movie — India yet again reminded the Bollywood moguls of its instinctive preference for implausible potboilers like Simbaa or for the more realistic Uri, as opposed to the simultaneously running The Accidental Prime Minister, which carried the political salvo, emotions and intent during its release. Critical reviews of the film were mixed, with some stating that it had “measured tones”, whereas others criticised it as “an out-an-out propaganda film”. The final box-office fate of the film notwithstanding, it is the underlying and accompanying “spirit” behind the endeavour (both the book and movie) that is relevant to the emerging national discourse, character and sensibilities, as indeed, to the person who is actually enacted in it, without his consent.
In vibrant democracies, debate, disagreements and contrarian views are essential — that they come out in the form of memoirs or movies is par for the course. Unfortunately, the tendency to ban books or movies seen to be offensive to an individual or community on account of caste, region or religion have also been increasing — due to growing intolerance and the rising calls to curb our cherished freedom of speech — also stifles the intellectual discourse. However, all such “expressions” via any medium in the “non-fiction” domain presumes the positing of a fact, perspective or hypothesis that bears no deliberate malice towards anybody. That the stated revelations as honestly propounded could offend anybody is also no ground for calling for its “ban”. A parallel onus of responsibility is implicit on “fictional” writing, wherein any purported allusion or implication to a “factual” reality needs to be explicitly denied, avoided in letter and, more important, in “spirit”. Therefore, the moral defence against the ban on Satanic Verses was made more complicated by the motives and accusations “knowingly” ascribed onto Salman Rushdie, which question his “spirit” and intent. It is in this light that the dichotomy emerges about the “spirit” behind The Accidental Prime Minister, as the author incredulously stated in an interview to the New York Times: “My editors’ biggest worry, and my worry was that this book would be seen as propaganda for Manmohan Singh. They said listen, you’re being too nice, all you’re saying is that he a great Prime Minister!” The consequences certainly did not pan out as he suggested, and this is where the question of intent and “spirit” emerges.
High offices of the country and its leadership involve many layered and “grey” dimensions of decision-making, it is not a linear process and the team empowered to partake the process as trusted members bear a moral responsibility to respect the faith reposed onto their privileged access. Certainly, the onus to “speak out” freely is implicit in cases where an “expose” of any wrongdoing or malfeasance to the national interest is insisted with specific details. However, if the narrative of the ostensible “expose” veers around no such substantive detail but ends up caricaturising an individual, who in good faith had reposed the original trust — it’s tantamount to a moral conundrum of “spirit” and “word”. Dr Manmohan Singh’s daughter had poignantly called it a “huge betrayal of trust” and shared the nugget that the author had given an assurance that the book’s release would happen after the elections, which turned out to be not the case. Everyone acts according to their own instincts, “words” and morality, and Dr
Manmohan Singh did not personally comment then, or now, on this obvious sleight.
The matter is not one of legality or constitutionality, as both support the unquestioned right to freedom of speech and expression — it is one of the failed courtesies, dignities and “spirit” that ought to have persevered. True to his modesty, Dr Manmohan Singh added tongue-in-cheek that he wasn’t just an accidental Prime Minister but was also an accidental finance minister. However, he steadfastly avoided dignifying the book with any direct comment. History indeed will sift the wheat from the chaff of hyperbole — Dr Manmohan Singh was the first to allude to his own limitations and challenges. However, to personalise attacks and caricaturise people is the sort of inelegance that does not behove or come naturally to the statesman, either accidentally or un-accidentally.