Decoding the PMO
There has been a lot of talk about the two power-centers in the UPA and the government being remote-controlled by ’10 Janpath’ for the last 10 years. The unusual phenomenon is that these notions have acquired credibility with voices coming from the people who have served in the PMO and has experienced the role of unconstitutional powers instructing the constitutional authorities to do or not to do certain things.
“Pulok, who was inducted into the Manmohan Singh PMO at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, had regular, almost daily, meetings with Sonia at which he was said to brief her on the key policy issues of the day and seek her instructions on important files to be cleared by the PM. .. I was dismayed by the PM's display of spinelessness.” That’s how Sanjay Baru, a senior editor and PM's Media Adviser between 2004 and 2008, expressed his anguish in a much talked about book The Accidental Prime Minister–The Making and Unmaking Of Manmohan Singh published by Penguin.
On similar lines, P C Parakh, another retired bureaucrat and former Coal Secretary, PC Parakh, has appraised the Indian masses about how the PM was undermined by his own office (PMO) and other ministers in his book Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths. While explaining the root of policy paralysis in UPA II, Parakh reveals, “It is unfortunate that while the Prime Minister was keen on implementing open bidding, he was unable to counter vested interests within his government and party. The government’s inability to take a right decision at the right time has resulted in Coalgate and subsequent CBI investigations monitored by the Supreme Court. To save its skin, the government has resorted to hasty and arbitrary cancellation of allocations. All this has resulted in policy paralysis.”
Though the PMO has officially denied Baru's claim as “completely baseless and mischievous” and “categorically denied that any PMO file has ever been shown to Smt Sonia Gandhi,” it is not news to the Delhi power corridors that the PMO was headed by the Principal Secretary, currently Pulok Chatterji, a close aid of 10 Janpath.
One can argue the timing and propriety of these contentions as Baru was negated the second term as a Secretary in PMO, allegedly at the behest of the Congress party, and P C Parakh is facing the wrath of investigation in Coal block allocations. Still, questions loom over the role and functioning of the PMO, what the powerful PMO is all about and how it was degraded into a virtually defunct institution, manipulated by extra-constitutional powers.
Emergence of Extra-Constitutional PMO
PMO, considered to be the most powerful executive office of India, is itself not constitutional. To help the real executive in Indian democracy discharge its varied responsibilities, the PMO, headed by the Principal Secretary, is evolved with the time. When India gained independence, it was the PM’s secretariat which inherited the office of Secretary to the then Governor-General. All the Prime Ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru displayed an inclination for an elaborate Prime Minister's Secretariat but only with inclusion under the Government of India Allocation of Business Rules, 1961, it acquired a department status. Still, constitutional practice recognises only the Cabinet Secretariat, not the PMO, as the institution to aid and advice the PM. During the Indira Gandhi regime the office of PM’s secretariat acquired unprecedented importance and emerged as the real decision making organization. To negate the bureaucratic excesses and influence of PM secretariat, Morarji Desai designated the secretariat as PMO in June 1977.
After regaining mandate in 1980, It was Smt Indira Gandhi who really institutionalised the PMO to facilitate her kitchen cabinet style functioning. P C Alexander, her Principal Secretary, divulged elaborate details on his role in his book, My Years with Indira Gandhi. His revelations clearly depict his influence on almost all decisions made by Smt Gandhi. “On any working day, the first engagement of the Prime Minister after reaching office was to meet me. …My discussions would cover a wide range of subjects, such as important appointments, sensitive political and defence matters, law and order problems, issues coming up for discussion in the Parliament or before a Cabinet meeting, major foreign policy problems….”, Alexander narrates. This has undermined the role of cabinet and cabinet secretariat to a large extent. Thus, the inherent nature of PMO was extra-constitutional. At least, Indira Gandhi kept this additional department tightly under her own control.
During Rajiv era (1984-89), the office further grew in importance and size and forced the neightbouring External Affairs Ministry to vacate the space. From V P Singh to I K Gujaral, the office could not exhibit its importance due to political compulsions of the coalition governments. P V Nasimha Rao brought some corrective actions by bringing ‘balance of influence’ between the Cabinet Secretariat, the real Constitutional administrative position and the PMO, used for facilitating decisions and executions of the Cabinet. He also introduced the system of appointing a Minister of State to provide political assistance and ensuring sanctity of the Cabinet system. Atal Behari Vajpayee further synchronised the process for the smooth functioning of the government (see the detailed account narrated by his Media Adviser Ashok Tandon).
PMO the Super Cabinet?
The PMO provides secretarial assistance to the Prime Minister, constitute additional secretary, joint secretaries and directors, besides the Principal Secretary to Prime Minister. The PMO includes the anti-corruption unit and the public wing dealing with grievances.
Since the Prime Minister is Chairman of the Planning Commission, relevant files are forwarded to the PMO for his comments and clearance.
Some of the important matters that require the Prime Minister's personal attention include the following:
(a)Important defence-related issues;
(b)Decorations, both civilian and defence, where Presidential approval is required;
(c)All important policy issues;
(d)Proposals for appointment of Indian Heads of Missions abroad and requests for grant of agreement for foreign Heads of Missions posted to India;
(e)All important decisions relating to the Cabinet Secretariat;
(f)Appointments to State Administrative Tribunals and the Central Administrative Tribunal, UPSC, Election Commission, Appointment of members of statutory/constitutional Committees, Commissions attached to various Ministries;
(g)All policy matters relating to the administration of the Civil Services and administrative reforms;
(h)Special Packages announced by the Prime Minister for States are monitored in the PMO and periodical reports submitted to Prime Minister; and
(i)All judicial appointments for which Presidential approval is required.
Parliament Questions relating to the Ministries and Departments of which Prime Minister is the Minister-in-charge are answered by a MOS nominated for the purpose or by Prime Minister himself.
The Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF) and the National Defence Fund (NDF) are operated directly from the PMO.
Though PMO has organisational hierarchy and specified functions, the most distinguishing feature of the PMO is that the Principal Secretary and many other officers such as media adviser and security adviser can be appointed on political considerations. The distribution of work is not permanent one and the PM has discretion to modify it according to changing needs.
PMO under Siege
The flexibility and discretionary powers in the functioning of PMO has been manipulated in the last 10 years. PMO which is anyway considered as the super-cabinet was actually managed by the Super PM. Appointment of close confidant of the 10 Janpath, Pulok Chatterji, as the Principal Secretary and creation of the new institution called National Advisory Committee (NAC) chaired by the Congress president were the two key initiatives that subverted the PM post. “Indeed, Pulok was the single most point of regular contact between PM and Sonia. He was also the PMO's main point of contact with the NAC, a high profile advisory body chaired by Sonia Gandhi, with social activists as members. It was sometimes dubbed the shadow cabinet,” explained Sanjai Baru in his book. Parakh’s book further ratifies this with, “After the Prime Minister’s approval, we received a note from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) enumerating the possible problems in moving to open bidding (of coal blocks). It is understood that this note from the PMO was based on an unsigned note given by the MoS to the PMO.” This shows who the real boss was.
When the PM was apprised with the problems of external power centre by his media adviser, “that creates confusion; I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party,” was his reply. The policies were formulated by the NAC and executed by the party machinery was the real quandary of this siege. Especially when the UPA government is tarnished with the corruption charges, financial mismanagement and security lapses, PM Mnamohan Singh’s approach of ‘turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of his ministers, keeping mum on the implementation of MGNREGA and refusal to take briefings from intelligence agencies raise serious questions about the interests that were working outside the government.
How should be the next PMO?
“Initially, I saw his subservience as an aspect of his shy and self-effacing personality, but over time I felt, like many, that this might be his strategy for political survival. Was it just unquestioned loyalty to the leader of a survival instinct that prompted him to remain? Whatever the motive, his image took a fatal blow.”
With the PM declaring his retirement, more accountable and decisive government is expected after the culmination of General Elections for the 16th Lok Sabha. The PM, who will head the PMO and establish syncronised relationship with the Cabinet Secretariat to uphold the principles of accountability and collective responsibility enshrined in the Constitution is the minimum expectation. This is not a question of image of one individual but restoring the sanctity and dignity of the Prime Minister’s post. This will be the key mission for the next government. Then only the PM will be regarded as the captain of a team, with the ‘first among equal’ status.
Former Media Advisor to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee
I don’t want to comment on what Baru has said about the functioning of PMO under Dr Manmohan Singh. He was an appointed PM in very different circumstances. Election was won by Congress under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership and she appointed him as Congress Prime Minister. But here I want to explain how the PMO under Vajpayeeji functioned.
Principal Secretary is incharge of the PMO and all files are routed through him. He is administrative head, while the PM is captain of the team. In Vajpayee’s PMO, Brijesh Mishra as Principal Secretary was all powerful bureaucrat and Vajpayeeji had full confidence in him. Therefore, the functioning was very good and the PM’s authority was very much established.
When it came to dealing with the coalition partners, Vajpayeeji was in complete command of the NDA. He dealt with Partners at personal level. Any NDA partner could take up the phone and talked to the PM. They could even walk to his residence without prior appointment. That is why most of the Partners very friendly to him and respected him a lot. Eventually, they became his hardened supporters. Some partners like Viako, Mamata, Nitish and Navin were his trusted colleagues.
The dealing with Opposition parties was also looked after by Vajpayeeji himself. His equations with the left parties and also with the Congress party were quite working. Congress leaders including Smt Sonia Gandhi and others could very conveniently meet him. Whether it was the issue of Sonia Gandhi and her family members’ security or discussion on policies and programmes, his doors were always open. His personal equations worked wonder and that is why his tenure was successful. Therefore, the question of undermining the Prime Minister’s authority did not arise at all.
The dealing with the parliamentary party—BJP’s Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha members was largely left to Advaniji, who interacted with the MPs, listened to them and dealt with them. If somebody directly met Vajpayeeji on any issue he too advised him/her to speak to Advaniji. The dealing with party organisation too was looked after by Advaniji. The rapport between Advanji and Vajpayeeji on all these fronts was perfect.
There cannot be a comparison between Dr Manmohan Singh’s PMO and Vajpayee’s PMO. What Baru has written applies only to Manmohan Singh’s office. Even the PMOs of Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, etc were different from the present one. They were the leaders of big stature. Elections were won under their leadership and they were accountable to the people also. In case of Manmohan Singh, he is not a popular leader; he never led the party to victory; he was hardly accountable to people. That is why there were different ways of functioning in his office. This is what Baru has tried to reflect. Moreover, Baru has said nothing new. It was well known to the people. The only difference was that now it is in a book form. Dr Singh too has been aware of the circumstances under which he worked. Many times he went on record saying he is satisfied with the two power centres. He was in fact proud to be working under Sonia Gandhi’s guidance. He knew it well that the day he tried to become popular he would be replaced.
The denial by PMO has no standing now. Baru has brought about the fault lines in Manmohan Singh PMO. It all shows the experiment of two power centres and appointing someone as PM who is not a politician and telling him to act as a CEO has been a failure. The best lesson from Baru’s book is that India should have only a strong politician and elected representative of the people as Prime Minister so that he could directly be accountable to the people rather than his political masters.
(As told to Pramod Kumar)
Who is Pulok Chatterji?
Pulok, suffered from the handicap that his own service had never regarded him as one of its bright sparks. A serving IAS officer, he had never worked in any important ministry. He was inducted into Rajiv's PMO as a deputy secretary after having served as a district official in Amethi, his constituency in Uttar Pradesh, where he had caught Rajiv's eye. After Rajiv's death, he chose to work for the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation where he did some worthwhile social development work. But this meant that he was not just outside government but completely identified with the Gandhi family. When Pulok returned to government, it was to work on the personal staff of Sonia Gandhi when she was leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
Pulok, who was inducted into the Manmohan Singh PMO at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, had regular, almost daily, meetings with Sonia at which he was said to brief her on the key policy issues of the day and seek her instructions on important files to be cleared by the PM. Indeed, Pulok was the single most important point of regular contact between the PM and Sonia. He was also the PMO's main point of contact with the National Advisory Council (NAC), a high-profile advisory body chaired by Sonia Gandhi…
(Leader of Opposition, Rajya Sabha)
Dr. Sanjay Baru’s book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ only confirms what the country ordinarily suspected. The Prime Minister has to take most of its decisions approved and ratified from the Congress President. All sensitive subjects have to be discussed with the person outside the government. The appointments of key officials would be regulated by 10 Janpath. …. In a parliamentary democracy, the party system is an essential requirement. However, the accountability in democracy is of the elected representatives and not of the party office-bearers. It is the Prime Minister and his council of Ministers, which, through the parliament are accountable to the people. Amongst various institutions which have been dwarfed in the UPA regime, the principal one was the office of the Prime Minister itself. Dr Manmohan Singh is really an Accident—Dr Vedpratap Vaidik
The message that Sanjay Baru’s book, Accidental Prime Minister, conveys is that Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister has really been an Accident for the largest democracy of the world. He proved it through his conduct and personality. The excerpts of his media advisor’s book present a live picture of this accident. It is just the beginning. It may take some more time to expose the entire fraud. Only then the people would be able to know how the democracy of 1.25 crore people is abducted and how even the Constitution is betrayed.