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Up, close & personal with the PM's friend

September 2, 2008
There are many public images surrounding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi thinks he has extraordinary vision, tenacity and leadership while senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Advani thinks he is the weakest prime minister ever.

Back in 2004, when he was nominated to the most-coveted post by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, most people thought Dr Singh is a babu, a bookworm, a right-wing economist and apolitical man who is not sensitised to the real issues of India's teeming millions. He was dismissed by some as a wily, silent and loyal associate of the Gandhi family.

Dr Singh's image changed drastically in the public mind when in an interview to a Kolkata newspaper last year he dared the Left to withdraw support to this government.

The projection of a politically and morally correct image for Dr Singh was tricky business, and giving a spin to what all he did or didn't do was an unenviable task. It was more difficult because no Congressman can ever sell himself more than a member of the Gandhi family. Therefore, Dr Singh remained a karmayogi and didn't attempt to gain charisma through the enormous power he wielded.

Therefore, Dr Sanjaya Baru, Dr Singh's media advisor, hardly had a task on his hands. There was an implicit mandate to remain low profile because the Congress president is the tallest leader in the party. However, as the PM's spokesman, Baru remained controversial because of his bold ways in projecting Dr Singh as some kind of a genius on India's foreign policy. The Congress party and the ministry of external affairs both found him more active than necessary and disliked his SMSes and media leaks.

Baru, who belongs to Hyderabad, is an academician turned journalist. When his father B P R Vithal was finance secretary of Andhra Pradesh, Dr Singh was finance secretary in New Delhi. Vithal is a renowned expert on Centre-state relations, and worked for some time as an IMF fiscal expert and a member of the Tenth Finance Commission (1992-94).

After doing his MA from JNU, Baru did his MPhil in applied economics from the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, and his PhD from JNU. Since the early '90s he has been a personal friend of Dr Singh.

Baru, who has resigned from the PMO after four years to take up a highly-paid teaching job in Singapore, spoke to Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt on his last day in office about his friend -- the prime minister whom no one really knows much about. Click here for the interview...

Image: Dr Sanjaya Baru (in brown coat) with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on board the PM's aircraft en route to Paris in September 2005.
Photograph: Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Also read: Dr Manmohan Singh visits Paris and UN

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