The recently released Bollywood film The Accidental Prime Minister has generated lot of attention both inside and outside India.
Based on a book authored by the former media adviser of India’s ex-prime minister Manmohan Singh, the film shows Singh—the first turbaned Sikh prime minister of the Hindu-dominated country—in a poor light.
Played by Anupam Kher, Singh is depicted as a caricature, though he's soft-spoken and well-mannered in real life.
Singh is an economist and was not a career politician. He was first brought into government by the former Indian prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, as a finance minister to introduce economic reforms in the country. Both Rao and Singh belonged to the fiscally conservative class of the then ruling centrist Congress party.
Eventually in 2004, Singh was nominated for prime minister by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi. Under her command, the Congress led the United Progressive Alliance coalition, supported by left parties. It defeated the coalition led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently governs the country.
Since Gandhi is of the Italian origin and was married to the former prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, the BJP and other right-wing groups opposed any efforts to make her the next prime minister. They did not want anyone of foreign descent to lead the country. So much so, some voices of dissent were also noticed within Gandhi's party.
Under those circumstances, Singh was put in this position by Gandhi. Singh remained prime minister for two successive terms.
The film is right in exposing how Singh was ineffective in dealing with corruption and how dynasty politics continued to dominate the Congress party. It's now led by Gandhi's son Rahul. But it only tells a selective truth.
While Singh was definitely an accidental prime minister and was under constant pressure from Congress and Sonia Gandhi, filmmaker Vijay Ratnakar Gutte's intentions aren’t hard to judge. This is especially so with the timing of its release. This is very significant, considering that the next general election is slated to be held this summer.
The film ends with a note reminding the audience that Congress put in its worst performance in the 2014 election. That kind of messaging during another election year is clearly aimed at influencing voters and public opinion among overseas Indians, who keep a close watch on political developments back home.
The film has already attracted so much curiosity. Among those in the audience in Surrey who came to watch the movie on January 13 was former Canadian federal cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal.
That the filmmaker chose Kher to play Singh is not coincidental. Kher is a known supporter of the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, and Kher's wife is a BJP MP.
The BJP has publicly mocked Singh as a weak prime minister on many occasions. The submissive image of Singh in the film perfectly suits this narrative.
Anyone can see how Singh’s body language has been exaggerated to depict him as spineless. In real life, Singh is a very astute man who knew how to retain power with the backing of international monetary bodies so he could pursue his ruthless economic agenda.
While he wasn’t a career politician, he cannot be brushed aside as a dummy.
The caricaturing of Singh and the Gandhis as two-dimensional characters was a great injustice to their stories.
Undoubtedly, Sonia Gandhi aspired to groom her son as the future prime minister. But she also set an example by choosing someone from the minority Sikh community to become prime minister when right-wing politicians opposed her candidacy.
Notably, the Congress party was responsible for a nationwide anti-Sikh massacre in 1984. Because of this, there was a great disconnection between Sikhs and the Congress. Sonia Gandhi’s gesture was therefore historically important even though a genuine attempt to serve justice was completely lacking. The Congress never came clean on this issue.
The film, which shows the Gandhis and their cronies as crooks, does not reveal these aspects, without which Singh’s legacy can be comprehended. This is despite the fact that Singh issued a national apology for the 1984 episode, however half-hearted it was.
Right-wing forces that openly threatened Sonia Gandhi because of her Christian background and foreign origin remain obscured in the story. Even though this issue was briefly touched upon in the beginning by including raw footage of politicians bashing Gandhi for not being born in India, there is total silence of the BJP's broader anti-minority agenda.
Rather, raw footage of Modi was included in the end where he is projected as an effective orator who takes on the Gandhis and corruption before coming to power with a majority in 2014.
We don’t need a rocket scientist to understand why very recently, many Indian film stars visited Modi and got themselves photographed with him. Most of them posted their pictures with the prime minister on Twitter, while a biopic on Modi is coming soon.
After all, cinema is a powerful medium, and Modi and his BJP are trying their best to outreach ordinary people before the election is announced.
Today when attacks on religious minorities have grown under Modi and extremists continue to enjoy the backing of the state, The Accidental Prime Minister does a great disservice by minimizing and overlooking the real threat to a secular India from within by the Hindu right and singularly attacks the Congress.
The BJP’s hostility toward Sonia Gandhi has to be seen and understood in this context.
This is not to suggest that the Congress is a true secular alternative or is doing a great job. The party must share blame for indulging in majoritarianism that created a political environment that helped the BJP.
Yet the filmmakers who have a social responsibility cannot ignore certain facts over the others to favour those in power.