The Rediff Special/ Ramesh Menon
At one end of Rajpath, flanking Rashtrapati Bhavan, is an impressive red stone building with tall ceilings and a squeaky-clean interior. Within are huge stone urns filled to the brim with water and rose petals. The day here starts at 9 am sharp, unlike in other offices in North and South Block. Insiders proudly say they work seven days a week. For this is where Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee operates from.
Unlike other North Block offices, the Prime Minister's Office is heavily guarded. Even mobile phones have to be left at the entrance. Every visitor has to pass through numerous checkpoints and is frisked repeatedly. Once inside, one is watched constantly.
In the first 17 years after Independence, there was no such thing as a PMO. Jawaharlal Nehru dealt with files directly, with the help of two personal assistants. Lal Bahadur Shastri only had L K Jha, his secretary, to fall back on. Indira Gandhi, though, replaced the brilliant Jha with the politically savvy strategist, P N Haksar.
During her reign, and that of her son Rajiv, the PMO got a personality. It was peopled with visionaries like H Y Sharda Prasad, Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Gopi Arora and Ranen Sen. Rajiv also relied on people like Sam Pitroda and Anil Aggarwal to push through issues like technology and environmental protection. Today, the only heavyweights are Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra and Officer on Special Duty Nand Kishore Singh. But one of the most influential persons here is Ranjan Bhattacharya, Vajpayee's foster son-in-law.
When he took over as prime minister, Vajpayee demarcated areas like drinking water, health, education and agriculture for the PMO's special attention. But, as survival increasingly became the order of the day, he used the PMO to shield himself from the hardliners in the Sangh Parivar and his acid-tongued allies in the National Democratic Alliance. As a result, intrigue and power games have come to dominate the PMO. tehelka.com's damning expose of the sleaze in defence deals last month and the telecom controversy soon after has only aggravated matters.
For it is not just the Opposition that has trained its guns on the PMO, particularly Mishra and Singh. Certain sections of the BJP and its allies like the Shiv Sena are waxing eloquent on how the prime minister needs to put his house in order. The RSS too has made clear its antipathy to the PMO. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which cannot stomach pro-liberalisation policies, thinks N K Singh, who is in charge of economic reforms, has brainwashed the PM.
For Vajpayee, it's indeed lonely at the top. Which could be why he refused to allow the RSS to dictate policy, especially when it came to the staffing of the PMO. The first person he brought in was Brajesh Mishra. Ever since, Mishra has worked closely with the PM and helped him gain a perspective on every issue.
Vajpayee and Mishra go back a long way. As India's first non-Congress foreign minister, Vajpayee had pulled Mishra out of a low-profile job as ambassador to Jakarta and made him India's permanent representative at the United Nations. That was in 1979. A few years after his retirement, Mishra joined the BJP and was made convener of the party's foreign affairs cell.
As principal secretary in the PMO, national security adviser, special envoy to France for strategic dialogue and member on various committees set up by Vajpayee, Mishra wields the kind of influence only few can dream of. It is not for nothing that he is called The Supercrat. Mishra, in fact, is the most powerful principal secretary the PMO has ever seen. He takes centrestage in every event that merits attention, whether it is a crisis in Kashmir, a nuclear test or the Tehelka tapes. He loves to be in control. To be the one who will call the shots.
Which is why he would not have been too pleased with the press conference he was compelled -- by Vajpayee's express instructions -- to hold in Delhi last month, to defend himself and the PMO. He deflected questions about his involvement in defence deals, about his having become an extra-constitutional authority, with characteristic defiance.
Despite having seen 72 summers, Mishra has always seemed cocky, even arrogant. But Kanchan Gupta, who was earlier officer on special duty at the PMO, says: "Mishra is remarkably well-read. With his rich experience, he often ends up asking uncomfortable questions on a file sent by the bureaucrats. Naturally, he is seen as arrogant."
Major General (retd) Afsir Karim has seen Mishra function at various security meetings. "He has clarity and a sense of purpose. He is to the point and wants action taken and followed," he says.
Mishra's detractors, though, say he has become a super PM of sorts; that he takes advantage of Vajpayee's implicit trust. But Gupta asks: "If Mishra is the principal secretary, the PM will naturally listen to him. You cannot expect a PM to treat his principal secretary like dirt."
It is not just bureaucrats, though. His independent style of functioning has ruffled many feathers in various ministries like home, defence and external affairs. Ministers like Jaswant Singh, L K Advani, Yashwant Sinha and, earlier, George Fernandes, are clearly uncomfortable with the clout he wields. They do not like his interference. Or that he often knows what happens in their ministry before they do.
But can key officers in the PMO influence contracts? Gupta rubbishes this as nonsense. "Just one person cannot push through any decision at the PMO. It is teamwork and all views and remarks are on the files. Ultimately, it is for the prime minister to make a decision based on what his office says. If he listens to the principal secretary, it is not surprising. He is expected to do so. Who else will he talk to?"
Mohan Guruswamy, former adviser to Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, differs. He says the PMO has been trying to influence the finance ministry's decisions. Especially when it concerns the Ambanis or Hindujas. In fact, economic affairs secretary E A S Sarma quit last November in disgust because of the numerous pressures from industrial lobbies to push their private agenda. He had over a year to go before retirement.
Shortly after Sarma's exit, the PMO sent the finance ministry the 3960 MW Hirma power project file which involved Reliance and the US-based Southern Electric; it wanted the finance ministry to offer counter-guarantees despite the Enron experience. The roadblock till then was Sarma, who was against any such counter-guarantee. It is no secret that the PMO was unhappy with him because he was not pliable. Soon after his retirement, Sarma told rediff.com that he found it more honorable to quit than continue being transferred for not giving in to pressure. In the three years before he quit, he was transferred three times.
Later, in an interview with The Times Of India, he said, 'The PMO has over-extended its reach... It is not healthy for a secretary in the ministry to abdicate his or her responsibility and look up to the PMO for instructions. The way the PMO is trying to extend its role has sometimes resulted in a blurring of accountability.'
Nand Kishore Singh, Nandu to his friends, is the officer on special duty in charge of economic affairs. A former revenue secretary, he did not see eye-to-eye with the finance minister. When there were signs that he would be shunted out, he made sure he was asked to join the PMO. Now, with the SJM baying for his blood and his appointment as high commissioner to Canada in limbo, his future looks grim.
Let us see how the PMO functions. The office, which employs around 400 people at present, is headed by the prime minister. He is assisted on a minute-to-minute basis by his two personal secretaries, A Bisaria and V Anandrajan, and his principal secretary, Mishra, though whom all files are routed. Everyone else in the PMO is subordinate to Mishra.
There are five joint secretaries, each of whom is delegated a ministry. Jarnail Singh looks after home, Javed Usmani after power, R Raghavan after the National Security Council, Ashok Saikia after administration and Chattar Singh after telecom. Each is assisted by a director, who in turn is assisted by a deputy secretary.
Ashok Tandon is additional secretary in charge of the media. H K Dua, former editor, The Hindustan Times, also handles the media. Former journalist Sudheendra Kulkani, a Leftist in the past, writes the prime minister's speeches. He accompanies the PM everywhere. There are six other IAS officers who function as directors looking after different areas. For example, Archana Ranjan looks after the Prime Minister's Relief Fund. A S Daulat, former director, Research and Analysis Wing, is the officer on special duty for Kashmir.
"There's a lot of mystique about the PMO," says a former official. "But 99 per cent of the time, we are just pushing files."
Vajpayee's critics accuse him of allowing his foster son-in-law unbridled authority. Bhattacharya, his wife Namita and their daughter Niharika live with the prime minister. In his first avatar as prime minister, Vajpayee had appointed Bhattacharya his officer on special duty. Though he had no credentials for the job -- Bhattacharya is managing director and promoter of Country Development and Management Services Private Limited, a hotel management company -- the decision attracted little attention as the 13-day government collapsed.
Alleges Guruswamy, "Ninety-five per cent of the PMO's attention is grabbed by lobbyists. And Ranjan Bhattacharya is the focal point of all lobbying. This is because he controls access to the prime minister, controls inputs to the prime minister and controls the prime minister's closest advisers..."
Design: Uttam Ghosh
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