Ministers in the Narendra Modi government have been busy making presentations on their 100 days of work. But what these presentations do not mention is that decisions by ministers have been few, with plenty of papers and files moving to the Prime Minister’s Office, which is increasingly emerging as a centralised clearance point, even for routine and ordinary issues. Though policy paralysis was a term used freely for the United Progressive Alliance regime, questions are now being raised about pending decisions across ministries and whether at least some ministers have turned redundant.
For instance, who will go as part of the Indian contingent to Incheon, South Korea for the Asian Games is a matter that took quite a bit of PMO’s time. The sports ministry, headed by Sarbananda Sonowal, sought “guidance” from the PMO after finding the size of the contingent of 942, finalised by the Indian Olympic Association, too large. It was only after a week-long deliberation with PMO that the ministry on Tuesday cleared a pruned contingent of 672. At other times, such clearances came from the ministry itself. The Asian Games are only 10 days away.
In some cases, ministers were seeking advice and guidance from the PMO as a precautionary step to avoid taking wrong decisions, while there were other areas where Modi himself was taking charge, leaving nothing to chance, said an official.
Even as a separate ministry has been created for river development and Ganga rejuvenation, the minister, Uma Bharti, has not taken any decision on her own in the past three months. To formulate a plan for Ganga rejuvenation, an issue that was part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto and is close to Modi’s heart, an inter-ministerial panel was set up under Roads and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari. But when the Supreme Court told the government to hurry up with its plan, it was the PM himself who chaired a meeting on Ganga earlier this week.
Infrastructure is a focus area for the Modi government, with several ministers holding charge of portfolios across the sector. Besides Gadkari (roads and shipping), there are Sadanand Gowda (railways), Ravi Shankar Prasad (telecom and information technology), Ashok Gajapathi Raju (civil aviation) and Piyush Goyal (power) holding infrastructure-related portfolios. But it is PMO that seems to be the hot seat for infrastructure projects. A large number of decisions and meetings, big and small, in the infrastructure sector take place at Modi’s South Block office. In fact, a joint secretary in PMO, A K Sharma, is the go-to person for industry when it comes to infrastructure-related issues.
A civil servant told Business Standard the PMO-centric decisions were causing resentment among some ministers. But that might not change things. Soon after taking charge as PM, Modi had given an indication of things to come when he interacted with government secretaries on a range of issues and gave them confidence they could access him directly whenever there was a need. The PM has not left it at that. He is known to discuss important issues directly with secretaries and, at times, even joint secretaries, across ministries, without bothering about the protocol of keeping ministers in the loop.
Petroleum is another sector facing the consequences of indecision. Exploration of oil & gas reserves had been impacted as Dharmendra Pradhan, minister of state for petroleum & natural gas, did not take a call on crucial matters, an analyst said.
He pointed out the post of joint secretary in charge of exploration was lying vacant for about two months. The work has been divided among joint secretaries handling refineries and natural gas. Besides, the next round of bidding for oil & gas blocks under the new exploration and licensing policy is yet to take off, though preparation for it began during the UPA tenure.
Also, the Kelkar committee, appointed to review the suggestions on what should be the new model for the government’s share in oil and gas blocks, got an extension of a month and a half after the expiry of its term. The committee, the tenure of which ended on June 30, was created by an order of the petroleum and natural gas ministry. “The minister should have decided whether the extension was coming or not. But there was a delay because it needed the PM’s clearance,” an official said. The ministry is yet to take a call on gas pricing, too, though this matter is not known to be with PMO. Perhaps due to all the pending decisions, Pradhan, a BJP minister holding a highly relevant portfolio, did not even figure in the list of ministers approved for holding press conferences to highlight the government’s 100-day achievements.
Telecom, another important economic ministry, is being seen as a lacklustre place in the Modi regime. Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has not yet taken any major policy step. Also, many Telecom Commission posts are lying vacant and a draft on a super-regulator, like one envisaged in 2001, has been moved again. The PMO is believed to be closely tracking all significant telecom issues, including the proposed merger of Mahanagar Telecom Nigam Limited and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and the need for spectrum auction, given the controversy around 2G spectrum sale during the UPA rule. It only helps that former telecom secretary and chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Nripendra Misra is now principal secretary to the PM.
Not just that. The food ministry’s plan to reform the Food Corporation of India moved back and forth for a while, after which the matter was referred to PMO. Subsequently, a committee was constituted under former Himachal Pradesh chief minister, Shanta Kumar, with a time-bound action plan to reform the corporation. According to officials, the names of the committee’s members were also approved by PMO.
Again, PMO has been hands-on in dealing with the issue of inflation. It coordinated directly with all ministries, including consumer affairs, holding regular meetings and sessions to know the price situation and steps being taken. On drought relief, too, PMO directly assessed the situation. On its directives, regular meetings were held with affected states and steps to give relief, such as diesel subsidy and restructured loans, were announced even before the extent of drought was clear. In addition, some officials said, major initiatives of the agriculture ministry, such as the Gaushala Yojana and the agri-insurance scheme, are being monitored by PMO.
That PMO is the only real power centre in the Modi government came out clearly when foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan were called off recently, after “high-level political consultations”. Also, Minister of State for Commerce, Finance and Corporate Affairs Nirmala Sitharaman had to recently skip an official visit to Myanmar for the Asean summit at the last moment as she was required to be present at the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, a flagship scheme of the Modi government. The PMO under Modi vets all senior appointments in the government, including those of private secretaries to ministers.