Respected Sonia ji
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What makes Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi click? In the six years since Sonia refused prime ministership, this question has been much debated and talked about. Now, correspondence between the two — accessed by The Indian Express through the Right to Information Act — sheds light on their unique relationship, which is built as much on trust and confidence as a conscious and deliberate effort to blend her Left-of-centre approach with his reformist outlook.
The two have shared 82 letters since May 2004, when the first UPA government came to power, with Sonia stepping aside for Singh to take over as Prime Minister. These show a spirit of accommodation from both, as well as assertiveness when it comes to their domain areas.
Despite the strength of their working relationship, the letters are largely formal in tone. The only exception is PM's reply to a dinner invitation from the UPA chairperson on March 7, 2006. "Gursharan and I would be happy to join you on this occasion," he wrote, making a rare personal reference.
Singh is, otherwise, matter-of-fact and brief, often sending single-sentence "I have received" acknowledgements to her letters, be it about implementing the fundamental right to education in 2006 or about nominating Phrang Roy as the next International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) President in 2008 or on a draft legislation on the Right to Food in 2009.
The letters also show the effort made by the two to ensure that they are by each other's side at important party functions and official dinners, mindful of an absence quickly spawning allegations of a rift.
A united front
Out of the 82 letters written by the PM to Sonia, at least 14 are invitations to dinner hosted by him for visiting foreign dignitaries or Council of Ministers or UPA leaders. There are similar invitations from Sonia, who also ensures his involvement in institutions run by her.
On July 29 last year, Sonia wrote to the PM about the renewal of his trusteeship of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. He wrote back, "I would be privileged to continue my trusteeship for another term. A month later, there was similar correspondence between the two on his continuation as Chairperson of the International Jury for the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development.
Although both are in touch over the telephone and also meet regularly, they are inclined to put everything in writing.
Upholding the commonly held perception, the letters show that the PM is barely involved in party affairs even though he is invited to important party functions. Of the 82 letters, there is only one concerning the Congress party. It was PM's acceptance of her invitation to address District Congress Committee presidents and other party leaders in May 2006.
A look at the correspondence between the two also suggests that on crucial occasions, the decision-making process is collective — the Cabinet in case of the government and Core Group in matters of the party. Be it Indo-US nuclear deal or trust vote in Parliament or the 26/11 terror attack, they find no mention in the PM's letters to the Congress president during that period.
Manmohanomics, and her
Singh is assertive when it comes to economic issues, holding his ground and trying to convince the Congress president of the rationale of his decisions. In April 2006, ruling party leaders went to town describing how Sonia was concerned about the impact of free trade agreements (FTAs) with ASEAN countries. Perhaps they were not aware that around the time, the PM wrote back to her arguing in favour of the FTAs, even as he "appreciated the concern" expressed in her letter.
"I would like to assure you in this regard that our approach to regional trading agreements in general, and FTAs in particular, has been evolved after careful consideration of our geo-political as well as economic interests," he said in his letter dated April 20, 2006.
"Although India has a large domestic market, our experience with earlier, relatively insular policies, as also the global experience in this regard, clearly bring out the growth potential of trade and economic cooperation with the global economy. Increased opportunities for trade that will become available through regional and multi-lateral trading agreements are expected to improve the competitiveness and incomes in all sectors, including manufacturing and agriculture."
"We are undertaking bilateral and regional negotiations only after a serious and professional study is done of the pros and cons of such engagements. We are also taking care to consult all stakeholders in advance, particularly those who might be adversely affected in the short run," stated the PM, adding that the government is especially careful in the case of agriculture, and has often placed quantitative restrictions and taken other measures to ensure that domestic agriculture is not adversely affected.
"At the same time, I fully endorse your suggestion that it is imperative to protect and strengthen the agriculture sector. We are studying the Swaminathan Committee report with full seriousness and will ensure that its recommendations are implemented in a coordinated and time-bound manner," said the PM.
Sonia was apparently convinced, as there were no further queries from her on this issue.
In June 2005, the Left parties had suspended their participation in the UPA-Left Coordination Committee owing to their opposition to the government's decision to disinvest shares in BHEL. Under tremendous political pressure for the next four months, the government had to backtrack. Communicating the government's decision to the UPA chairperson, the PM sought to drive the point across one last time. "Taking into consideration all factors, including the necessity to raise additional resources and the commitment to enhancing investment in the social sector, the government has decided to put in abeyance the process of disinvestment in the shares of BHEL. I hope this decision of the government would meet the concerns of Left parties who could then be asked to resume participation in the UPA-Left Coordination Committee," he stated in his letter dated October 5, 2005.
Madam president, and him
Even though Singh was often disappointed by the constraints on policies due to political compulsions, he was deferential to Sonia. In January 2007, amidst protests by different political parties against Walmart's entry into India, the Congress president wrote to the PM cautioning the government against rushing into a decision on this issue and suggesting that it should examine the impact of FDI in retail. "I am having the matter looked into by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry," the PM replied. The government has not moved on that front yet.
In November 2006, Sonia wrote two letters to the PM regarding a revised rehabilitation and resettlement policy and the need for its applicability to Special Economic Zones (SEZs). There were immediate instructions from the PM to expedite the process.
In October 2007, she wrote to him suggesting a White Paper on Disinvestment Policy. He gave immediate instructions to the Finance Minister to prepare it.
The PM's correspondence with Sonia also shows how she has been showing interest on a range of issues concerning governance, from introduction of commercial flights to Kargil and upgradation and renovation of Kargil airport (her letter to PM dated April 2, 2008) to conservation of tigers, conservation of rivers, regulation of high-rise constructions in Lutyen's Bungalow Zone, liberation and rehabilitation of manual scavengers, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Mission, NREGS, integrated energy policy, setting up panchayati Yuva Khel Abhiyan, development programmes in minority concentration districts, merger of ITI with BSNL, raising 15 additional battalions of the ITBP, etc.
Sonia and the Prime Minister were in constant touch on the progress of the Ganga Action Plan. She wrote several letters to the PM on judicial reforms and Gram Nyayalaya Bill; they are getting translated into action now.
She sent a draft legislation on the Right to Food to the PM in June last year. She sent a revised one in July 2009. On July 20, the PM wrote to her, "Keeping in view the urgency and importance of the matter, a Group of Ministers has already been constituted to examine the issues relevant to the proposed legislation. The draft of the legislation which you have sent to me will be duly considered by this GoM, which is chaired by the Finance Minister."
Given her keen interest in arts and culture, Sonia has also been writing to the PM on different issues like makeover of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) and setting up of a Mentoring Group of eminent persons for this exercise. She forwarded to him Kapila Vatsyayan's suggestions in the craft sector. Incidentally, the PM has kept the Culture portfolio with himself in the second term of the UPA.