Prime Minister Singh Described As 'Concensus Man'

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Sanjaya Baru knows India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh well. He is the prime minister's former media adviser, and is now editor-in-chief of India's leading business newspaper the Business Standard. Baru tells Renee Montagne that he would describe Singh as a "consensus man" because the prime minister learned early that he was leading a very fractious coalition, so he spent a lot of time listening to people who disagreed with him.


Our next guest has known Manmohan Singh for 20 years, and until last year was the spokesman for the prime minister. Sanjaya Baru is now the editor of the Indian newspaper The Business Standard. We asked him to give us some insight into India's leader.

Mr. SANJAYA BARU (Former Spokesman to the Indian Prime Minister): He's a very quiet, shy, but a very determined, tough guy. I think the best way to describe Manmohan Singh is to call him a consensus man. He understood very early in his tenure in office that he was leading a very fractious coalition, a coalition that actually had people who fundamentally disagreed with him. So, he invested a lot of time in trying to build a consensus around whatever initiatives he was taking. He would spend hours and hours and hours just sitting and talking to people who've disagreed with him violently.

MONTAGNE: You know, when you describe him as a consensus-builder, someone who wants to bring people around to his side, it sounds like he might get along quite well with President Obama, who also has those tendencies.

Mr. BARU: I think from what I gathered, they seemed to have hit it off very well because he understands the problems that President Obama is having in building a consensus for change within the U.S. And Manmohan Singh has been there, done that.

MONTAGNE: And in terms of his politics, he's overseen a transformation in how India views itself in the world, and one that is not without controversy among the old guard.

Mr. BARU: That's right. I mean, the policies that he began in '91 opened up the Indian economy to global competition, and that hurt a lot of people in India who were quite secure in the earlier closed regime. And also, he started the early steps of privatization of India's huge public sector, which didn't go down very well with the trade unions in the public sector. And finally, he reduced a lot of the controls that government used to exercise on business, and therefore was not very popular with politicians and government officials. Don't forget that India was operating in a new world, a post-Cold War world in which India's long-time friend, the Soviet Union, had just disappeared.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us a little bit about that history for Americans who might not quite know. How would India have seen itself up until just a few years ago, and how has that changed over the last few years?

Mr. BARU: Indians take a lot of pride in calling themselves the only successful democracy in the developing world. But I think the difference is that in the Cold War period, the U.S. moved closer to Pakistan and China, and so India moved closer to the Soviet Union. And with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, India had to rework its relationships. And certainly, the opening up of the Indian economy that Manmohan Singh began provided opportunities for a lot of American companies to move into India and look at the Indian market.

But I think the real turning point in many ways in the U.S. relations was Y2K, the 2000 - year 2000, Indian software engineers and computer engineers suddenly found themselves in the U.S. helping the U.S. in adjusting itself to the Y2K problem. And that opened a new chapter in our relations with a huge increase in services, trade and software and computer industry.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, do you think the prime minister is the type of leader who will enjoy the pomp and the ceremony of the coming days?

Mr. BARU: No, no. Actually, it's more his wife who I know quite likes the pomp and ceremony of office. She's quite happy and likes to enjoy it. But he is someone who I've always found extremely uncomfortable with the pomp and ceremony of office. I mean, I've seen him in many situations where he's waiting for the ceremony to end so that he can go back into his room, unbutton his coat and sit back and relax. He gets quite tense with having to following protocol.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BARU: Thank you. I enjoyed that.

MONTAGNE: Sanjaya Baru is the editor of the Indian newspaper, The Business Standard. India's visitor prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is being feted tonight at a state dinner at the White House.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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