The Manmohan Singh PMO's fracas with The Washington Post and its India correspondent, Simon Denyer, is a case of friendly enmity or frenmity if you like. But if A.B.Vajpayee is introduced into the shindig on account of the criticism of his prime-ministerial style by Time magazine, then it becomes a story of clashing world views that is nearly civilizational in character.

The more remarkable Indian prime ministers have also been complex, and Vajpayee has never been an easy man to understand, an outsider in BJP, an island unto himself in politics, keeping his own personal laws, someone with poetic sensibilities, and a nationalist at heart. When he became prime minister, there was expectation and excitement that his political maturation in right-wing, conservative ideology would impel India into natural alliance with the United States.

That's what at any rate Vajpayee articulated in his New York Asia Society address in September 2000. But it had been preceded two years previously with the Pokhran II tests that had angered the Clinton administration into sanctioning India. Not only was the United States the sole superpower, it hadn't begun to show the decline of later years, and it had a strong and charismatic president in Bill Clinton. Vajpayee, the politician and strategist, knew he had to get India out of the Pokhran II hole, and had to sweeten relations with the US even if he had other ideas.

He had other ideas, to be sure, and they principally concerned securing India's interests in an unstable post-Cold War world. He was under pressure, for example, to sign CTBT after Pokhran II, and there is an interesting insider account of how closely he played his cards to his chest and got out of doing so in Washington. Apparently, Vajpayee and a senior cabinet minister travelled together to the US one time, and the minister convinced him (or so he thought) to okay CTBT. The minister went to another city whilst the prime minister arrived in Washington.

The minister told a US presidential aide to expect the CTBT announcement from Vajpayee. The aide had been updated differently but kept his silence. At the designated hour, Vajpayee spoke, but not about signing CTBT. He fudged the issue. The minister was stunned but the presidential aide had been warned beforehand. He had been authoritatively told Vajpayee would not sign CTBT.

There is another instance of how Vajpayee ran rings around the United States. Some years ago, Left politicians made an interesting disclosure. They said Vajpayee had told them to oppose within and outside Parliament any Indian military involvement in Iraq as a means to resist US pressure. Even Congress was primed to do so. In other words, Vajpayee was his own prime minister, and whilst he may have appeared friendly to the United States on the surface, he didn't make real concessions.

This background is necessary to understand Time magazine's criticism of Vajpayee's prime-ministership, saying he was sleeping on the job. That criticism is factually incorrect. Vajpayee may have appeared slow and not all there, but he had a first-rate mind and he was a wonderful delegator. He knew what he wanted and who would deliver it. He was not a file pusher. He was a big ideas man. In six years, he proved himself one of India's outstanding prime ministers. Because he didn't serve US interests conditioned by his nationalist upbringing and conservative ideology, the US did not like him very much, which partly explains Time magazine's criticism.

The case with Manmohan Singh is completely different, perhaps even the opposite. Unlike Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh had a Western higher education, in Cambridge and Oxford. He never got over his fascination with the West, becoming in due course its slave. Whilst receiving an honorary degree from Oxford University in July 2005, he had the gall to say "...it is possible for an Indian Prime Minister to assert that India's experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences...." He told the (former) US president, George W.Bush, that Indians "loved" him. Only because of the precedent set by Vajpayee, Indian troops could not deploy in Iraq under Manmohan Singh.

Subsequently, Manmohan Singh was prevented by coalition compulsions and opposition pressure from tying India too closely to the United States. He pushed his defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to sign the Indo-US defence framework agreement, but the Left allies of Manmohan Singh's UPA-1 government ensured that it did not benefit the United States with "interoperability", joint operations, provision of India bases for American foreign interventions, and so forth.

The Indo-US nuclear deal was obtained by Manmohan Singh after blackmailing the Congress leadership with a resignation threat and a corrupt confidence vote victory in Parliament. In its final form, the deal was less pro-US, thanks to the spirited battle put up by the opposition and strategic writers, including the late nuclear physicist, P.K.Iyengar. And against Manmohan Singh's wishes, Parliament passed a tough nuclear liability law, which has upset US reactor manufacturers.

Finally, there has been economic paralysis under a star economist PM. Manmohan Singh was made finance minister in 1991 partly to win over IMF. When he became PM, the West expected India to open its markets. The expectation turned to desperation after the November 2008 bankruptcies in the United States. Left to him, Manmohan Singh would have obliged the West. But by then, coalition compulsions were enormous, he had lost control of government, and inflation had begun to rear its head to kill the growth story before long. Manmohan Singh was helpless. As a prime minister, he was powerless to assist the West. His own ambitions, however, dissuaded him from leaving.

It is these factors that have prompted Western media and ratings' agency attacks on Manmohan Singh and his government. The attacks do not lack substance. Every word written in The Washington Post story is true, and the rating agencies' downbeat analysis of the Indian political economy is entirely accurate, but their intentions may not be always honourable. Without questioning the journalistic credentials of Simon Denyer who wrote the Post story, it can be said that the West's hopes from Manmohan Singh have been dashed, and that largely explains the venom unleashed against him.

But that doesn't put Manmohan Singh and A.B.Vajpayee in the same bracket. Vajpayee had conceived and put clear limits to a friendship/ partnership with the United States and the rest of the West, with an alliance never being considered despite his statement to that effect. On the other hand, Manmohan Singh was prevented by Indian polity and public opinion from embracing the West to India's certain disadvantage. So frenemies have now seized upon him, trashing him with words, and seeking a better and more efficient deliverer. Through all this, one prime minister emerges a nationalist, whilst another is, despite his exertions and protestations, condemned as an apostate.