With power concentrated in the PMO, ministers are sometimes the last ones to know what’s happening in their departments.
By Neeraj Mahajan
The Prime Minister of India’s Office (PMO) under Narendra Modi is developing as a super-cabinet and epicenter of extra-constitutional and alternate authority—a control room for relaying and repeating the signals received in his master’s voice. It’s a command post for C5-I2 (conceptualization, command, control, communications, coordination, intelligence and implementation) operations.
As the new headmaster of the school of ministers, Modi is changing established rules of governance. All the ministries are now glorified front desks— administered and mentored by the PMO. The PMO has the last word—especially when it comes to economic ministries like petroleum, power, transport, and commerce. Soon it will be operating as a de facto planning commission. Even the Performance Management Division (PMD), currently under the Cabinet Secretariat, is expected to merge into it under the pretext of better assessment of bureaucratic work. A big overhaul is expected of the Performance Management Evaluation System (PMES) that was set up by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in January 2009.
The 20-room PMO, flanked by the Cabinet Secretariat, Ministries of External Affairs and Defense, and Rashtrapati Bhaw-an is the new hot seat of power and a place where all important decisions are taken on behalf of Modi. A haven for serving,
re-employed or rehabilitated bureaucrats and clerks, who are reliable, efficient, trustworthy and loyal to Modi, the PMO, faced with a space crunch, is trying to elbow out other departments from South Block to accommodate its staff.
The big question is, whether the PMO should be a center for alternate and unacc-ountable government authority or a refuge for power-brokers? A government with abso-lute unaccountable authority can always use it as a brute force. Indira Gandhi used to marshal ordinances when parliament was not in session and later convert them into bills without any discussion in parliament.
With hardly any political opposition, the toughest challenge before Modi is not how to make politicians behave but how to make the sluggish 18 million strong bureaucracy work and deliver results.
Apparently, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee too reportedly realized this, but since the bureaucracy was not in a mood to change—he decided to change himself.
Paradoxically, although Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth (1974 batch) is supposed to be the seniormost bureaucrat in India, Nripendra Mishra (1967 batch), the principal secretary in the PMO, has wider powers because of his proximity to the PM. There are many overlapping and unresolved issues between the Cabinet Secretariat and PM’s Secretariat. But no one bothers about it, as the heads of both retired from the Uttar Pradesh cadre of IAS and are not accountable to anyone or any authority except Modi. Seth was given a one-year extension by the UPA in 2013 and was due to retire on June 13. But thanks to a second extension of six months, many 1976-1977 batch IAS officers might lose their chance to become cabinet secretary. Mishra, who too retired long ago, has much to thank Modi for.
According to sources close to the new prime minister, Modi’s idea behind an assertive PMO is to have one man in command, one aim, one speed and one direction—forward. The one in the driver’s seat alone decides when to speed up the pace or apply the brakes. Modi’s style of handling the bureaucracy is more or less similar to that of Rajiv Gandhi in the early days of his prime ministership, when he called a meeting of 600 district collectors. Modi wants performers in his team. The crux of the problem is not the intention but the way he is going about finding a solution.
Dilution of powers of the cabinet secretary and home ministry started during Indira Gandhi’s time. In between 1969 and 1977 and after 1980, many intelligence and subordinate offices, originally under the home ministry, were taken over by the PM secretariat. These were the days of Indira Gandhi’s powerful “kitchen cabinets”. The real cabinet was stripped of its powers.
Indira Gandhi did not want cabinet ministers to be powerful. Anyone who refused to toe the line was removed or disgraced. Outspokenness was not tolerated. The PMO issued direct orders—demanding all ministerial statements to be cleared by it. Mohan Dharia, who defied the order, was dismissed from the cabinet. Years later, VP Singh too was shifted when he tried to do things without consulting the PM.
Even now, the manner in which the PMO is usurping powers and making the other ministries and departments play second fiddle is alarming. Intentionally or otherwise—Modi is playing with fire—he is activating a dormant but potentially volatile political and bureaucratic volcano.
The Government of India’s Transaction of Business Rules, 1961, says that the president allocates the business to the ministers by assigning one or more department to the minister on the advice of the prime minister. Thereafter, the minister is supposed to be
in-charge of disposal of business of that department. But three developments have a different story to tell.
One of the first things Modi did after becoming the prime minister was to chair a two-and-a-half hour meeting of 77 secretaries to the government of India, including Cabinet Secretary Seth; finance, Mayaram; home, Anil Goswami; defense, Radha Krishna Mathur; foreign, Sujatha Singh; commerce, Rajeev Kher; personnel, SK Sarkar; power, PK Sinha; agriculture, Ashish Bahuguna; and heavy industries, Sutanu Behuria. This form of direct one-to-one communication was a marked departure from Manmohan Singh’s days. But surprisingly all the cabinet ministers were left out. Aren’t ministers equally responsible for running the government and need to know what is being discussed about their ministry?
Modi reportedly told the secretaries and senior bureaucrats that he was going to be “accessible to all of them” and they could walk in anytime to discuss ideas directly with him. Here are the implications: under the present system, secretaries to the government of India do not have a system of appraisal like annual confidential reports (ACRs) and are indirectly covered by the
PMES. This means secretaries don’t need to please their bosses for good ACRs like lower ranks. Given an opportunity they would be only too happy to bypass their ministers and get them over-ruled. Why does Modi need to talk directly to officers behind his own ministers’ back?
All the secretaries were asked to prepare a 10-minute presentation for the prime minister, listing each ministry’s goals and scope for improvement. This was to be first vetted by the PMO before the ministers were brought into the picture. Why should the ministers be the last to know what’s happening in their ministries? If the ministers are immature or incapable, why did he appoint them?
Curiously, even the constitution of India does not recognize or provide for an autho-rity—with or without the name of PMO—to assume, dilute or usurp the powers of the council of ministers, who are accountable to the parliament and people. There is no mention of any extra-constitutional authority, with any such superior or overriding powers. The prime minister himself is supposed to be “primus inter pares” or first among equals. As per Article 74 of the constitution, the prime minister and all his ministers are appointed by the president to “aid and advise the President”, but there is no provision in any statute book for the prime minister or his PMO to ride roughshod over the collective responsibility of the cabinet.
In any conventional system, the minister’s job is to formulate the policy and the bureaucrat’s job is to implement it. But by changing this equation Modi seems to be conveying the impression that he wants things done, even if it means changing the rules. No bureaucrat would mind direct access to the prime minister, but it is for the prime minister to ensure that the authority of the ministers is not by-passed and secretaries do not make it a routine to do it or poison the prime minister’s ears behind a minister’s back.
“The real danger is not what is happening inside the PMO but the manner in which it is transforming everything into Modi ki pathshala or finishing school for ministers,” quips a political observer.
Most of Modi’s ministers heading various ministries or departments are totally clueless about what is happening. Union tourism and culture minister Shripad Naik was denied permission to visit China to attend the festival of India. Naik was shocked not by the denial of permission but the manner in which it was conveyed to him.
Even other ministers are not expected to have a mind of their own. Most ministers can’t even decide about whom to induct in their personal staff. The PMO turned down the requests of Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for External Affairs Gen (Retd) VK Singh and Minister of State for Rural Development Upendra Kushwaha for their preferred private secretaries.
There is no scope for imagination and innovation and all that is left for the ministers is to say: “Yes Prime Minister”. Sadly, the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry’s priority task today is to send four-hourly reports to the PMO on all that is catching public attention on the social media—Facebook and Twitter. Nothing else moves without the PMO’s instructions.
Even the manner in which good boys (loyalists) have been rewarded and bad boys have been moved out has raised eyebrows. For instance, R Ramanujam, secretary, PMO, and 1979-batch MP cadre IAS officer, was recently given three months’ extension “in the public interest”.
Varesh Sinha, Gujarat Chief Secretary under Modi and a 1977-batch IAS officer, received a three-month extension. Sinha had already got his first extension in April and will now serve till October. Another Modi favorite, Rajesh Kishore, a 1980-batch IAS officer, has been moved to Delhi as secretary general of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
At the other end of the spectrum, 80-year-old MK Narayanan, the Congress-appointed governor of Bengal, was one of the first to be made to step down after being questioned by the CBI for his role in the purchase of VVIP helicopters. The days of Sheila Dixit, the controversial governor of Kerala, are numbered.
Rajiv Nayan Choubey, a 1981-batch Tamil Nadu cadre officer, was also unlucky. He had almost packed his bags after the appointments committee approved his transfer from power to PMO as additional secretary on June 12. But soon he received another order, cancelling the earlier one. Choubey was to replace Shatrughan Singh, a 1983-batch Uttarakhand cadre IAS officer, whose name figured in the multi-crore coal-block scam.
The government is also planning to announce stricter rules for cushy post-retirement jobs for civil servants, particularly during the cooling off period.
A basic difference between Modi and Manmohan Singh is that the former would delegate power, not responsibility; as a result he would get the blame if anything went wrong. Modi distributes work; he delegates responsibility; but not power. He is a slave driver who wants others to do things his way.
But the question that needs to be answered is, whether the PMO should be allowed to develop as an independent and parallel legislative authority, outside the immediate control of parliament.
The NDA government ensured that Nripendra Misra, former chief of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) was appointed as the principal secretary to Narendra Modi. The government introduced TRAI (Amendment) Bill that allows a former chief of TRAI to take up a government job after retirement, whereas earlier he could take up only private jobs. Misra, a 1967-batch IAS officer, had retired as TRAI chairman in 2009. The bill was cleared in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, with the support of Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samajwadi Party and the Biju Janata Dal, with only the Congress opposing it.