Power tests the strength of a man’s character. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, arguably the most powerful holder of this office in many decades inherited an extremely unpretentious and subdued PMO led by Dr Manmohan Singh till 2014. The atmosphere that brought Modi into the PMO is vastly different from the one that will welcome the Prime Minister this year. The Prime Minister’s Office, over the years, has remained the engine guiding its organs and institutions to fulfill its constitutional obligations. What has Modi made of the Prime Minister’s office in five years? An analysis of Modi’s PMO would be unfair without studying the biographies of its previous holders and without a doubt, it’s officers.
British India introduced an executive council of the Governor General, given secretarial assistance by the Secretary- General of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru organised his office to be headed by a Joint Secretary, while the bulk of the coordination functions rested with the Cabinet Office. The first major structural change came in 1964 after Lal Bahadur Shastri took over the office. The Prime Minister’s Secretariat was given direct charge having its own Secretary, headed by the erudite Lakshmi Kant Jha, an ICS officer who later rose to become the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. With Jha’s entry as Secretary, the Prime Minister’s Secretariat effectively came under two key advisors, the Cabinet Secretary and the Secretary, the former’s role, being greatly diminished. Shastri’s Secretariat laid the foundation of a strategically restructured and greatly strengthened office. LK Jha fulfilled a key role as Shastri’s advisor being a first-rate economist.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took Shastri’s cue and strengthened her office in an unprecedented way. She brought in PN Haksar as her Principal Secretary and PN Dhar to handle economic matters. The political environment required increased support from the Left, the resulting policy framework conferred tremendous powers with the Prime Minister and her officers. An official designation was given to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat to henceforth be known as the Prime Minister’s Office or the PMO, as it is known today. The PMO functioned like a super-ministry with a strong hold on the intelligence network alongside decisions on security and foreign policy. It oversaw the work ordinarily left to the wisdom of the PM’s Cabinet colleagues and monitored everything, even its opponents. It is Gandhi’s PMO that is often compared with the Modi administration today.
By 1977, the Janata Party brought Morarji Desai in office. The dawn of coalition politics had the PMO often balancing decisions in compliance with the interests of its partners.
Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO mirrored his personality; it assumed significant power but also sought and trusted the advice of voices even outside the civil service. Steady economic policy and growing regional influence was a direct result. Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Chandrashekhar PMO’s were somewhat transitional and achieved nothing structurally significant. Their Cabinet colleagues seemed more forward thinking. It was Chandrashekhar’s Commerce Minister Subramanian Swamy, who structured the blueprint for economic reforms in the wake of the economic crisis.
The Balance of Payments crisis of 1991 forced the P. V. Narasimha Rao government to completely reshape its approach to sound economic policy and shift the national focus toward global realities. The PMO oversaw delicencing and deregulation and the promises made to the IMF and World Bank back then form the basis of all economic reform even after almost three decades. Without PV’s PMO and its direct interventions, given the political compulsions of the time, the crisis would not have been managed with the same urgency. Industry and trade were changed forever.
Prime Minister Vajpayee’s PMO saw the powers of the office fall under the leadership of the late Brajesh Mishra, of the Indian Foreign Service. Mishra became India’s first National Security Adviser, a post created to suit his influence and reach. Vajpayee, like Rajiv Gandhi, relied on the advice of experts from outside government along with the officers in his PMO. No doubt, Vajpayee’s PMO saw considerable power conferred to its own officers who oversaw the liberalisation of telecom policies and the National Highways. At its peak, Economic, Foreign and Security framework came under the direct influence of the officials advising Vajpayee directly.
In the ten years of the United Progressive Alliance, Dr Manmohan Singh’s PMO is the only time in history where the powers of the office, including key decision-making, originated elsewhere. A Prime Minister’s office often mirrors the personality of the individual that heads it; the bold initiatives that were taken by Dr Singh’s administration remain overshadowed by the UPA-2 years. His Principal Secretary Pulok Chatterji had earlier worked under Rajiv Gandhi’s P.M.O and also as O.S.D to Sonia Gandhi.
Prime Minister Modi took oath of office as a harbinger of change in an era of gloom and policy paralysis. Banks struggled with NPAs, the economy witnessed a jobs crisis and an agricultural and education sector was in dire need of reform. Modi’s office brought Nripendra Misra, a former IAS officer from the UP cadre and the celebrated and revered former IB Director and IPS officer Ajit Doval, as his National Security Advisor. Five years later, the 16th Lok Sabha will soon be dissolved by the President of India in the run-up to the elections. Every opinion section and drawing room conversation will analyse Modi, Nippy as Nripenda Misra is known among close friends along with Ajit Doval, who is now head of the Srategic Policy Group making him the most powerful bureaucrat in India’s history.
Modi’s staunchest critics will tell you that the sanctity of the office has been compromised. It is pompous, overrides Ministries, towers over key decisions and has managed to annoy the RSS mother-ship and even his own Cabinet colleagues who choose to remain silent barring only one who had made his resentment subtle but effective. A wise Sir Humphrey Appleby had hilariously stated that “A career in politics is no preparation for government”, a classic phrase used by all in Lutyen’s Delhi to justify and rationalise within their conscience that in 2014 the man had indeed won the mandate of the people.
Why then, among even his most ardent supporters, does Prime Minister Modi’s legacy of five years coupled with a capable and powerful PMO seem to be losing public support. It is ironic that when leadership has been the strongest, it must hide away from genuine questions on its performance, much less questioning the patriotism of even its own supporters. The Modi PMO now stands strongest; it has left an indelible mark on the office for the next Prime Minister. Given the current atmosphere, many genuine questions remain with the voters, the most pertinent being whether any other opposition leader, as PM, would have handled the escalation with Pakistan better than Modi. The Prime Minister and his office may not have been harbingers of sweeping change as was imagined in 2014.
Nevertheless, Modi must strive to remain on the right side of history, should his mandate be renewed in 2019. This new Presidential-style PMO in a parliamentary democracy must prove its effectiveness to maintain its legitimacy. India’s challenges are overshadowed by the availability of capable problem-solvers sitting along the fences that were never utilised effectively by the present government. The new PMO of 2019 must focus more on tough decisions and results.
(The writer is an author and Director of Severus India, a political consulting company)