It is said that any office is what the holder makes of it, and that is why a sensible way to study the development of the office is by biographies of its holders. So what has Modi made of the Prime Minister's Office?
Has it become over-zealous, micromanaging decisions, undercutting line ministries and in a sense, an aberration with the constitutional framework?
The nation was yearning for action after 10 years of policy paralysis. Fragmentation of decision-making in a milieu of coalition politics destroyed cohesion and a sense of purpose. The quagmire of procrastination and dubious financial decisions with a multiplicity of power centres was debilitating. It is ironic, that when leadership has become purposeful, it is accused of becoming authoritarian. In the Yes, Prime Minister Series, Humphrey reportedly retorted that "a career in politics is no preparation for government", but Modi's long career in government has augured well for his career in politics.
In reshaping the architecture of the PMO, one is reminded of what Harold Wilson, in his biography A Prime Minister on Prime Ministers said that "he who rejects change is the architect of decay". Modi won the election as the harbinger of change, acutely aware of the Yes, Prime Minister warning that "paperwork is the religion of the civil service." Re-adapting the civil service, making it more accountable with greater autonomy while accepting the religion of paperwork has altered the work culture and milieu.
It is useful to consider the evolution over time of the Prime Minister's Office. Prior to independence, the executive council of the Governor General was given secretarial assistance by the Secretary General of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The functions assigned to the PMO in the government of India allocation of business rules 1961 as amended in October 1970 principally concerns five key functions:
1. To deal with all references that have, under the rules of business, come to the Prime Minister.
2. To help the Prime Minister in respect of his/her overall responsibilities as head of Government. It includes liaison with the Union Ministries and the state Governments on matters in which the Prime Minister maybe interested.
3. To help the Prime Minister in the discharge of his responsibilities as the chairman of the Planning Commission.
4. To deal with the public relations side of the Prime Minister's office, that is, relations with the press, public.
5. To assist the Prime Minister in the examination of cases submitted to him for orders under prescribed rules.
Under Nehru, the office was invariably headed by a Joint Secretary, while the bulk of the coordination functions rested with the Cabinet Office.
This pattern prevailed till Shastri became PM on 9-6-1964. For the first time, the office of the Prime Minister was re-designated as the Prime Minister's Secretariat. It was now headed by a Secretary to the government with LK Jha as its first incumbent. I remember that my late father, a colleague of LK Jha, jokingly asked him if this would mean the end of the Cabinet Secretary's role as being the last entity to advise the PM. That question remained unanswered.
While a tentative beginning was made to strengthen and restructure the PMO, during Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri's regime, it came into sharp focus when Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister and PN Haksar replaced LK Jha initially to become Secretary to the PM and later as the Principal Secretary. PN Dhar emerged as the economic czar while Haksar kept a close eye on the overall governance rubric. The pursuit of left-centric economic policies designed to secure the support of the left parties concentrated enormous decision-making powers in the Prime Minister's Secretariat. It was during this period that functions of many other ministries, particularly the intelligence network, security and foreign policy related issues were increasingly overseen by the Prime Minister's Secretariat. This over-zealous monitoring increasingly came under sharp public review. With the change of government on 24th March 1977, Prime Minister Morarji Desai renamed the Prime Minister's Secretariat as the Prime Minister's Office. He also circumscribed its roles and functions significantly. Inevitably though, it was given the need to balance the interests of coalition partners.
During the Rajiv Gandhi period, once again the Prime Minister's Office assumed significant power and took active interest in the evolution of the economic policies. The VP Singh and Chandrashekhar Government were somewhat transitional. Subsequently during the tenure of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao between 1991 and 1996, the Prime Minister's Office played a crucial role in reshaping economic policies in response to the balance of payments crisis of 1991. The significant delicensing and deregulation of the industrial and trade sector were necessary to meet the conditionalities of multilateral institutions, particularly the IMF and the World Bank. The PMO acted as the fulcrum to coordinate the efforts of line ministries.
The period under Prime Minister Vajpayee, where I had the privilege of working as his Secretary, particularly on the economic side saw active decision-making, liberalising the Telecommunication sector and initiatives like NHAI, Power Sector Reforms, Infrastructure and Financial Sector. India was catapulted to a higher growth trajectory. It was by any reckoning an active PMO in the triple area of economy, foreign policy and security framework. For the first time, the office of the National Security Advisor was created and its functions combined with those of Brajesh Mishra, the Principal Secretary.
In the ten years of UPA1 and UPA2, Dr Manmohan Singh once told me that while I had worked in a more active and powerful PMO, his own PMO was a "low key one". Without too much thought, I instinctively responded that all PMOs must reflect the preferences and orientation of the Prime Minister himself. This was no reflection on him. Clearly the real PMO was outside of the PMO! It was common knowledge that important decision-making was taken elsewhere while the "formal" PMO was laden with routine dispensation, ceremonial and protocol obligations. It was an era of power without responsibility, and responsibility without power.
How has the Modi era qualitatively altered the milieu? First and foremost, by clear recognition that procedures cannot subvert intent. The historic mandate of a single -party government was Modi-Centric. It is his reputation and credentials which secured the decisive mandate of the government. The final accountability rests with him. The apparatus of government including the PMO must sub-serve this overarching objective.
Second, in pursuance of the above, the PMO has been increasingly tasked with overseeing timely implementation, defreezing stranded assets, and ensuring that individual ministries do not act in silos at cross purposes. It has sought a new compact between the Centre and the States.
Third, the synergy between foreign policy and economic policy is an added obligation.
The Prime Minister's Office is a constitutional office. So are indeed all organs and institutions created by that office for the fulfilment of its constitutional obligation. Modi neither invented nor created the PMO. He inherited an atrophied one. Investing purpose, vigour in changing ground realities, creating jobs, improving conditions of the poor and reinvigorating agriculture, enhancing competitiveness of the economy and ease of doing business are what the people of India seek from Modi.
The Prime Minister's Office must be the agent of change, a catalyst, but importantly, an agent of change for the vision scripted by Modi.
(NK Singh is a member of the BJP, former MP (Rajya Sabha), has held key bureaucratic assignments and has been a member of the Planning Commission.)
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