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Modi needs to put the ‘prime’ back into PMO

If Modi is to restore the credibility of the Government of India, he has to bring back that fear of the PMO — to make it seem authoritative (though not authoritarian), writes Ashok Malik.

ht view Updated: Jun 05, 2014 03:09 IST

In the past week, there has been much talk of Prime Minister Narendra Modi strengthening the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The dissolution of all existing groups of ministers (GoMs) and empowered groups of ministers (EGoMs) is part of this process. With their penchant for thesaurus-friendly phrases, Congress spokespersons have described this as "symptomatic of [an] autocratic regime". They have alleged Modi wants to be the "repository of all wisdom".

How true is this? Is Modi instituting a PMO dictatorship or is he just restoring a certain accountability and balance? Is he essentially saying that since the mandate was won in his name, the buck must stop with him and his office? To answer those questions, one needs to go into the history of GoMs.

Why were GoMs created? Particularly in the early 1990s, as India’s economy began to be opened up, policy changes and innovations sometimes required sanction from multiple ministries and stakeholders. For example, a private sector telecom industry would not have been possible without the telecom ministry working with the defence ministry and urging it to vacate spectrum. With its obvious revenue implications, this matter would also have been of interest to the finance ministry.

In his term in office (1991-96) PV Narasimha Rao promoted the mechanism of a committee of secretaries (CoS). Secretaries, as administrative heads of ministries concerned, would deliberate and argue and then take their recommendations to the cabinet. In the Atal Bihari Vajpayee coalition (1999-2004), there was an additional challenge of different ministries involved in a particular matter being run by ministers from different parties. To address this, Vajpayee upgraded the CoS mechanism to the GoM mechanism. The GoM then produced a position paper that went to the prime minister and the full cabinet for vetting and approval.

As a mechanism, the GoM is unexceptionable. As a consultative and preliminary phase of policy-making, as a platform for inter-ministerial and political negotiation, it has its points. It is entirely possible that Modi will appoint a few GoMs in his term as prime minister. What he will not do is permit an avalanche of GoMs and outsource his work to GoMs. Manmohan Singh’s big failing was he announced GoMs at the drop of a hat, with about 100 functioning simultaneously.

Singh’s GoMs were responsible for both genuinely difficult and intractable issues and also those issues that could and should have been disposed of in the normal course. Did the UPA government really need a ‘GoM on Haj’ or a ‘GoM on the revival of Prasar Bharati’? That apart, the UPA government virtually institutionalised EGoMs, which were allowed to take a final decision — not just make a recommendation — and completely bypass the cabinet and prime minister. In effect, each EGoM was a mini-cabinet and the head of each EGoM was acting for the prime minister in a limited jurisdiction. Modi has indicated a goodbye to that runaway GoM-EGoM culture.

To establish his authority Modi needs to do more. Astute prime ministers maintain oversight of key ministries using one of three instruments. Either the minister or the secretary or the private secretary (PS) to the minister should be a person the prime minister trusts and can access real-time information and feedback from. This is how prime ministers from Indira Gandhi to Rao to Vajpayee kept an eye on their government. If a minister displayed maverick, dissident or corrupt tendencies, a stubborn secretary or suitable PS sought to slow him down and made sure news reached the prime minister or PMO.

This system too was allowed to wither away in the Manmohan Singh period. Ministers were either appointed by coalition allies or answerable to the Congress president, not to the prime minister. In turn the ministers chose their secretaries and PSes and ended up referring their selections to the appointments committee of the cabinet for post facto validation. When a secretary went to the prime minister or the PMO with a genuine grievance against his minister — as happened with at least one coal secretary — he found no support and no institutional corrective. The decline of the PMO’s aura and position as the arbiter and appellate authority of last resort resulted in the council of ministers becoming a free for all.

If Modi is to restore the credibility of the Government of India, he has to bring back that fear of the PMO — to make it seem authoritative (though not authoritarian). Here, an anecdote from his days as Gujarat chief minister would be instructive. This is a true story, which this writer has heard from one of the parties directly involved.

One day a minister called on Modi in Gandhinagar and asked him to remove the secretary working in his department. Modi sensed the minister’s intentions were not entirely above board but did not want to snub a powerful politician. "All right," he told the minister, "I will remove the secretary without asking you any questions. But I have a condition. Don’t tell whom to appoint in his place."

The minister was nonplussed. Modi asked him to think it over and get back. The following morning, the minister returned to the chief minister’s office. He said he had reconsidered his demand and no longer wanted the secretary removed.

With Modi, discretion is the better part of valour. That Gujarat minister learnt it quickly enough. So will Delhi.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based

political commentator

The views expressed by the author are personal