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All the Prime Minister's officers

August 16, 2016 08:30 IST

The Modi PMO is like none other.
It is staffed by people who are so low profile that the only dominant personality is the Prime Minister's, reports Aditi Phadnis.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes a round of the PMO soon after assuming office. On extreme left, in the pink shirt, is Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to the prime minister.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes a round of the PMO soon after assuming office. On extreme left, in the pink shirt, is Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to the prime minister.

"Man! What a cat!" exclaimed a 30-something investment banker, unwittingly slipping back into college lingo, such was his excitement after a meeting with T V Somanathan (Tamil Nadu IAS, 1987), joint secretary in the Prime Minister's Office handling finance and capital markets.

Amid moves made after the 2016-2017 Budget that suggested a redefinition of long-term capital gains, with potentially profound tax effects on the earnings of foreign institutional investors, managers have been making a beeline to the finance ministry, PMO, anybody who will listen, to impress upon the government what a bad idea this is.

In Somanathan, they have found a worthy sparring partner. "He listens to you quietly and then catches you out with a gentle query that comprehensively demolishes your whole argument," said the banker. He added, sighing: "He really knows."

This is hardly surprising. With a doctorate in economics (commodity futures, to be exact), a book on derivatives and a stint in the World Bank, Somanathan was head-hunted by the Narendra Modi government that ignored his seemingly unsuitable background: He was PS to M Karunanidhi when the latter was chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

The only corruption case against Jayalalithaa that reached successful prosecution was based on an investigation by Somanathan.

Little wonder then, that when she became CM, he was moved as commissioner (disciplinary proceedings) for the Tirunelveli region. He didn't have a lot to do. He went to the World Bank and, later, returned to join PMO.

He is low key but knows everything there is to know about the tax provisions of the Mauritius, Singapore and other tax treaties, and will catch you out instantly if you haven't done your homework.

Somanathan is among six joint secretaries in the Modi PMO, who are the equivalent of worker bees. What they all have in common is zero desire to call attention to themselves, a high degree of competence and administrative mastery over the subjects they have been allotted.

And, by now, a fairly good understanding of exactly what Narendra Modi wants from the government.

Arvind Sharma, (Gujarat, 1988) along with Principal Secretary Nripendra Misra, handles infrastructure issues like roads and highways, power and railways. He has unofficial, informal charge of another politically important department -- the PM's foreign trips.

While the logistics and organisational outreach is handled by Bharatiya Janata Party General Secretary Ram Madhav, along with Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, it is Sharma who liaises on the PMO's behalf.

He understands the PM's mind extremely well and seldom makes promises. Which frequently annoys those he is dealing with, until they realise the wisdom of his strategy!

His colleagues describe him as a quintessentially decent human being who does not stray from the territory allotted to him, even if invited to.

Tarun Bajaj (Haryana, 1988) handles human resource development and the home ministry. His input is said to have been a factor in the decision to replace Smriti Irani with Prakash Javadekar. Bajaj is full of ideas and has benefited from his tenure in the department of economic affairs, where he handled pensions and insurance.

Debashree Mukherjee (AGMUT, 1991) handles the ministries of rural development, land and urban development. From the PMO's point of view, these are all key ones, given the emphasis on the Smart Cities project and the overall urbanising thrust of the government.

Anurag Jain (Madhya Pradesh, 1989) is considered a bright spark, somewhat dimmed because of the government's handling of the one rank, one pension issue. He has the charge of liaising with the ministry of defence, which, with the ministry of finance, must share the charge of politically overpromoting and then underselling OROP.

Vinay Mohan Kwatra (IFS, 1988) is the foreign service mandarin in the PMO. He caught the eye of the establishment when Modi was to leave for the BRICS summit in Brazil in 2014. He needed to have officers fluent in Hindi and lore has it Kwatra (whose Hindi is fluent, along with his French and Russian) helped quickly find officials who could help with interpretation.

Kwatra has served in Geneva (liaising with UN organisations such as ILO), the consulate in Durban, China (deputy chief of mission, handling trade and commerce) Russia (in the embassy's economic and political wing), in MEA, handling India's development programme in Afghanistan, and as head of economic, trade and finance issues at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

Bhaskar Khulbe (West Bengal, 1983), recently promoted as secretary, is known as Mr ACC (Appointments Committee of the Cabinet). He has charge of the sensitive judiciary department and everything to do with it, and is said to be the PM's speech writer. Said to be because no one, not even in the PMO, knows who actually writes the PM's speeches.

This is considered one of the most important jobs in PMO, not the least because of the number of speeches this PM delivers (as opposed to the previous one). And, also because it is the PMO that prepares drafts of the speeches read out by the President of India and the PM on Independence Day.

As additional principal secretary, P K Mishra (retired, Gujarat, 1972) knows everything there is to know in government. Earlier, he was the one who used to handle ACC matters but now shares these with Khulbe. All postings, transfers, and appointments are seen by him before they go to the PM.

"He knows the PM's mind better than the PM himself," said a government servant. After 16 years of working with Narendra Modi and no personal agenda, Mishra and Modi share a rapport that cannot be replicated. His greatest quality is his frankness -- and his capacity to divine what the PM is thinking.

Principal Secretary to the PM, Nripendra Misra (retired, UP, 1967) was also head-hunted by this PMO and had no previous experience of working with Modi. However, he has reached a degree of comfort in two years that has resulted in his elevation as policy czar.

Almost always on policy matters, Nripendra Misra's word is final -- although some aberrations have been reported.

In the debate last year on whether the government should breach its fiscal deficit target, for instance, he's said to have weighed in with Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan that the government should not breach the target, amid an assertion by Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian that spending would create new economic and commercial impetus and a breach of fiscal deficit was a small price to pay.

But, it was P K Mishra's final word, not Nripendra Misra's, that decided matters -- that the fisc should not be breached for the international signals it would send.

Poles of power outside the PMO

NITI AAYOG

Few realise how powerful this body is -- because it interacts with chief ministers directly, without aides, and this is a crucial factor in the economic thinking in the government.

Principal Advisor Rattan Wattal's terms of appointment direct him to report to the chairman (the prime minister) directly. Chief Executive Officer Amitabh Kant, on the other hand, reports to Vice Chairman Dr Arvind Panagariya.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR

Ajit Doval, former spook, had confided in friends early on that having installed Narendra Modi in office, it was time for him to move on.

When Modi heard these stories, he was called and the PM said: 'Itni door saath aakar ab saath chhod denge? (So long together and now you'll leave?)' Nobody gets to be in the room when Doval and the PM are together.

Some turbulence has been reported in the relationship between Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and the NSA, but this is far cry from the days when differences between Special Advisor M K Narayanan and the NSA, J N Dixit, would descend into slanging matches in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's presence.

Aditi Phadnis
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