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The powerful PMO that Modi heads

August 22, 2019 08:15 IST

'Modi's desire for absolute control has reportedly meant that individual ministers have little authority; in most cases, not even the right to select their own officers, while civil servants are expected to be subservient,' notes Smita Gupta.

A fascinating excerpt from Re-forming India: The Nation Today.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi witnesses the launch of Chandrayaan 2, July 22, 2019. Photographs: Press Information Bureau India

The importance of the Prime Minister's Office in the Union government's scheme of things has always been directly proportional to the power wielded by the prime minister of the period.

It is not surprising, then, that Narendra Modi presides over a very powerful PMO, comparable only with the ones headed by Indira Gandhi in 1971 and 1980 (though it was known as the prime minister's secretariat at the time) and Rajiv Gandhi in 1984.

Modi runs, by far, the most opaque PMO to date.

Communication under him has become a one-way street, with strictly regulated information being disseminated from his office, granting virtually no opportunity for journalists to seek clarifications or a perspective on a government position or decision, leave alone ask actual questions of him or any of his associates.

Modi's dislike of being made accountable in Parliament too has ensured that even Opposition leaders rarely receive answers to their questions, and many feel this shows a lack of respect for any legislature (in his 12 years as chief minister of Gujarat, the sessions of the state assembly were marked by their brevity).

Modi's desire for absolute control has reportedly meant that individual ministers have little authority; in most cases, not even the right to select their own officers, while civil servants are expected to be subservient. 

IMAGE: Prime Minister Modi being welcomed by Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Minister of State for Defence Shripad Yesso Naik and Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra at the Red Fort, August 15, 2019.

Modi prefers to take major decisions with the minimum possible consultation, possibly emanating from his desire to shock and awe.

This has often had unhappy consequences such as the one relating to demonetisation in November 2016.

Modi has not just centralised all government policy-making in the PMO but he also controls the selection of top officials in the GoI.

The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet that decides these appointments was earlier composed of the prime minister (who is the chairman), the home minister and the minister in-charge of the ministry concerned.

An official notification issued on June 18, 2014, announced that the ACC would henceforth have just two members, with the minister of the ministry concerned now excluded from the committee.

According to one report, the bold print at the bottom of most proposals to the ACC reads: 'Approval of the Home Minister will be obtained ex post facto in the ACC.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Modi addresses IAS officers of the 2017 batch, July 2, 2019.

In short, the home minister, too, has no say -- he just signs on the dotted line.

Modi, therefore, in addition to handpicking PMO officials, has an overwhelming say in appointing key officials across the government, such as those in the finance ministry.

He has also been predisposed to short stints, keeping the upper echelons of the civil services in a constant state of uncertainty and the rate of transfers at the Centre is the highest in decades.

Modi has shown a marked preference for officials either already known to him or those considered ideologically reliable.

Officers of the Gujarat cadres of the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service, especially those who had worked with him when he was chief minister, have got the lion's share of key posts; as for re-employed retired officials, those with the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think-tank with strong ties to the RSS, the organisation that provides the BJP with both ideology and direction, have had an edge.

In virtually every ministry, RSS men have been drafted even at junior levels as the eyes and ears of both Modi and the organisation.

In March 2015, Modi launched PRAGATI (Pro-Active Governance And Timely Implementation), a monthly review of long delayed Centre-state projects, across critical infrastructure sectors like railways, national highways, power and civil aviation, as well as 20 state infrastructure projects, with the object of fast-tracking them.

The meetings were attended by secretaries to the various ministries (but not the ministers) and PMO officials, while state chief secretaries participated in them through a video link -- chief ministers and state ministers were excluded from the exercise.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Modi chairs a meeting of PRAGATI, the multi-modal platform for Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation, July 31, 2019.

At the meetings, the prime minister sits in front of three large interactive screens, one with a live video of the officer he is talking to, while details of the project under discussion appear on the other screens -- its location, reasons for delay and cost overruns.

'A fourth screen, not visible to outstation participants, bears precise advice on the best direction forward.

'Its content, collated by the PMO's research team, is designed to give Modi a critical information edge,' India Today reported.

'While projecting the PM as a hands-on commander, it allows him to engage in an informed discussion, pulling up officers when necessary and even occasionally indulging in banter,' the magazine added.

Projects up for review are put up on the PRAGATI portal a fortnight or so in advance to alert the officials concerned.

Conversations with several secretaries yielded different responses.

A secretary of an infrastructure ministry said knowing the agenda in advance was useful as he could get things on track ahead of the review meeting.

Another secretary said the review meetings began on a positive note, but they progressively grew less effective: 'The fundamental principle of governance should be to facilitate and enable officers to do their work, not constantly control and monitor.

'Mr Modi believes that unless you keep everyone on tenterhooks, people won't perform.'

The prime minister also does not appreciate anything that he reads as dissent or disagreement at these meetings.

He is known to have pulled up a secretary for talking too much, asking him whether he had come from a teaching job, and mocked others who raised difficult questions, so much so that at one meeting, after the Cabinet secretary introduced the agenda for the day, no other secretary was willing to say anything.

Modi is believed to have said at that meeting, 'Mujhe atmachintan karna padega (I will have to introspect).'

Routine processes have also been tweaked to ensure the primacy of the prime minister.

Indeed, for the first time, the phrase 'all important policy matters' is part of his portfolio.

This ensures that Modi stays within the ambit of the Transaction of Business Rules while intervening in the working of any ministry.

All Cabinet notes are sent to the PMO twice -- first when the sponsoring ministry sends the note for consultation and again when the final note is prepared after consultations within a two-week time frame.

The PMO gets three days to examine the final note; until then, no copies can be made for further circulation.

In practice, insiders say, ministers rarely see the final version of the Cabinet note till the Cabinet meeting itself, occasionally even surprising the sponsoring ministry with last-minute changes.

A minister or secretary of any ministry may raise an objection at the Cabinet meeting, but only after explaining why this was not put down during the consultation process.

All this has been spelled out in a detailed letter from the Cabinet Secretariat.

Ministers rarely speak on specific items, except for senior ministers such as then finance minister Arun Jaitley and, occasionally, Nitin Gadkari, and, till he moved from the government to the vice president's post, M Venkaiah Naidu.

Modi also discovered that acting on his slogan of 'Minimum government, maximum governance' was easier said than done.

Two years after he dismantled the nine Groups of Ministers (GoMs) and 21 Empowered Groups of Ministers (EGoMs) -- which had been a hallmark of Dr Manmohan Singh's Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government -- to 'expedite the process of decision making and usher in greater accountability', the Groups were back, but in an informal shape as iGoMs, though with fewer members to look at issues such as the rejuvenation of the Ganga river to the fast-tracking of environmental clearances, or later to oversee the Centre's directive to fertiliser companies to lower non-urea rates in the interest of farmers.

Minimal paperwork was encouraged, with memories of the copious paperwork and files maintained by the UPA's EGoMs/GoMs eventually becoming public, thanks to the RTI Act, and the basis of evidence in cases like the 2G and coal scams that eventually brought that government down.

By mid-2017, the iGoMs took formal shape as 'alternative mechanisms' which were authorised by the Union Cabinet and duly notified -- a new avatar of the UPA's GoMs!

The first set of alternative mechanisms were set up to sell minority stakes in central public sector enterprises, plan strategic divestment, privatise Air India and consider and oversee mergers among the country's 21 public sector banks.

Indeed, the era of ministerial autonomy and influence has ended with Modi instituting a well-oiled system of controls.

Take E-Samiksha, an e-governance tool that is actually a platform which allows the PMO to establish a direct channel with ministry officials, bypassing Cabinet ministers.

Modi's PMO has emerged more powerful than any since the Rajiv Gandhi years, the last occasion when the institution enjoyed unquestioned primacy.

By ensuring a central role in decision-making on strategic issues, including national security, and direct oversight of critical infrastructure projects and administrative reforms, the prime minister has also ensured that while all successes will be attributed to him, so will all failures.

He had hoped to create a framework that would allow the PMO to push directly the progress of critical infrastructure, administrative reform and capacity development, but that too has not happened.

In the end, Modi's autocratic style has proved to be his greatest enemy, curbing his capacity for transformative reform -- whether of the economy, the civil service or in the arena of foreign policy.

Excerpted from Re-forming India: The Nation Today, edited by Niraja Gopal Jayal, with the kind permission of the publishers, Penguin Random House India.

Smita Gupta
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