All are Dancing to Modi’s Tune

Once worked as a secretariat of Prime Minister now PMO has emerged as an epicentre of power in the current political dispensation.

By Tridib Raman

  • PM Modi has remodelled the definition of governance in the present democratic system
  • Indira Gandhi started the tradition of a powerful PMO
  • The PMO was never that powerful during Pt Jawahar Lal Nehru’s time Indira Gandhi started the tradition of a powerful PMO
  • Earlier functioned as a secretariat, it got converted into PMO during Morarji Desai’s Janata Party rule

“THE office of the Prime Minister is what the holder chooses and is able to make it” then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s statement is the true meaning of the PMO’s and its significance.

It is well known that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s PMO is all powerful and has a brilliant aura. PM Modi has remodelled the definition of governance in the present democratic system. In the eight years of government in the centre, PMO has emerged as an epicentre of power in the current political dispensation.  Without the behest of the PMO, even a leaf cannot budge in the corridors of power. Despite the fact that experienced and eminent leaders who are ministers in his Cabinet are unable to make decisions on their own.  For small decisions, they too have to get approval from the PMO. The idea that Modi’s “PMO is India” gains more currency from the fact that it lost not only its concept but also its power during the decade-long tenure of his predecessor, Dr. Manmohan Singh.  During this period the PMO remained under the shadow of Sonia Gandhi’s residence, 10 Janpath. 

Soon after assuming office in 2014 PM, Modi not only restored the PMO’s prestige but also transformed it into the biggest power centre in the current political dispensation.  His inspiration was said to be Singapore’s founder Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew.  The story goes that he had asked LKY to share the secret that enabled him to develop Singapore from a poor port city to a wealthy global hub. 

The idea that Modi’s “PMO is India” gains more currency from the fact that it lost not only its concept but also its power during the decade-long tenure of his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh

Lee told him that Indira Gandhi had posed the same question to him in the 1980s and his answer at that time was the same he was giving Modi: “Till power gets centralised, its force and impact cannot remain effective.  The more hands it is given to, the more diluted it will be.  Singapore is a small country.  But India is vast with a diverse society and culture.  It is here that democracy was born and it has a long history of democratic struggles.” 

Indira took LKY’s advice to heart and tried to shape the PMO in the Indian context.  She started the tradition of a powerful PMO. Not many were consulted on major decisions. Important issues were discussed among a handful of people known as her kitchen cabinet. She rarely ever took major issues to the party forum. 

ML Fotedar’s autobiography ‘The Chinar Leaves’ recalls that after forming her new party Congress (Indira), she sought the blessings of Satya Sri Sai Baba.  The Baba raised his hand over her head saying “My blessings are always with you”.

The blessing was prophetic. On her return to Delhi, Indira Gandhi found the Election Commission had offered her two choices as the party’s new election symbol:  The Hand or Elephant. Her party colleagues were in favour of the Elephant which is a big, strong animal.  But Indira recalled Sai Baba’s hand raised in blessing and disregarding her party men’s advice, chose the Hand symbol and used it for the first time in the Delhi Municipal Corporation elections, emerging victorious. 

The Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh at his office after Swearing Ceremony in New Delhi on May 22, 2004 (Saturday).

Comparatively, Narendra Modi when he moved to Delhi after his election victory in 2014, came with little.  He had 13 successful years as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had a vision, his virtues were a strong personality and a handful of trusted lieutenants. PM Modi knew very well that in the Indian context, the Prime Minister’s role was complex and challenging.  He needed to be expert in balancing power among his colleagues.  The PMO also had a role in disseminating the power of the Prime Minister. Modi knew that if he is the face of the government, then his office would be the invisible entity which gave meaning to his face. The PMO would be the link between the Government, the Ministers and the Secretaries – it would represent Modi’s vision of Governance. Hence, he has replicated his ‘Gujarat model’ in the PMO by empowering his civil servants. When he was CM in Gujarat retired civil servants such as K Kailashnathan called the shots in the CMO. Kailashnathan was made the chief principal secretary to the Gujarat CM after retirement. When central power came into the hands of Modi in 2014 a new buzz word was coined, that the “PMO is India”. 

PMO is not only monitoring the working of various ministries, but also making them accountable. Cabinet Ministers are called to make presentations before PM Modi like a corporate CEO. The PMO is giving them targets which they have to fulfil. Modi’s PMO is known to deal directly with secretary and joint secretary level officers in various ministries.  It takes reports and feedback from them and issues necessary instructions. In this whole process Cabinet ministers have been reduced to mere ornamental constitutional idols. 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. 

PMO is not only monitoring the working of various ministries, but also making them accountable. Cabinet Ministers are called to make presentations before PM Modi like a corporate CEO

If we talk about Modi’s Principal Secretary Dr P K Mishra – his experience is his strength.  It was a ceaseless progression for him when he took over as the principal secretary in 2019, after his predecessor Nripendra Misra stepped down. Mishra, the 73-year-old,  soft-spoken retired Gujarat cadre bureaucrat has brought in his own style of functioning. He has a decentralised style to handle matters unlike his predecessor. Nripendra Misra used to chair all meetings. Though Mishra does not chair all meetings but takes a final call before the matter is put before the PM. 

N K Singh refers to PK Mishra as ‘a solution-seeker’ who does so while fully observing the rules of the game and with integrity not only towards the Constitution, but also the AoB rules in his book Portraits of Power. Besides Mishra, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is among the most powerful bureaucrats in the PMO to date. Modi has complete faith in his NSA Ajit Doval. The emergence of Doval has cast a shadow over the clout enjoyed by UP strongman Rajnath Singh. Doval looks into all matters relating to national security and policy matters except appointments. He also oversees policy matters relating to ministries of External Affairs, Overseas Indians Affairs, Defence, Space, Atomic Energy and the country’s external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing. Both P K Mishra and Ajit Doval hold the rank of a Cabinet Minister in the government.

In his book Singh points to the other important change in the Modi era– the creation of a new ‘principal advisor’, then occupied by Pradeep Kumar Sinha, the erstwhile cabinet secretary. Moreover, insiders in the government also said that to ensure that no two power centres emerge in the PMO, the government has created the post of Principal Advisor for a former Cabinet Secretary, who was first appointed as OSD in the PMO before being elevated as Principal Advisor. Presently, Tarun Kapoor has replaced Amit Khare as adviser to the Prime Minister.

All predecessors of PM Modi – be it Indira Gandhi’s secretary PN Haksar, PV Narasimha Rao’s AN Verma or Vajpayee’s National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra – were regarded as competent and efficient.  They were not only the PM’s eyes and ears but were also power centres in their own right. Manmohan Singh depended heavily on his NSA MK Narayanan. 

The PMO was never that powerful during Pt Jawahar Lal Nehru’s time.  He never needed a strong secretary or a powerful PMO during his 17 years.  Rather, he had very small personal staff headed by a joint secretary, known as Principal Private Secretary (PPS).  ICS officers like HVR Lengar, Dharmaveera and Keshoram served as his PPS.  Even on his foreign jaunts he would be accompanied by a personal assistant and a security officer.  Nehru himself managed the Ministry of External Affairs with three secretaries. 

Lal Bahadur Shastri can be credited with changing the face of PMO.  He founded the Prime Minister’s Secretariat (PMS) with Bihar cadre ICS officer LK Jha its first head

Lal Bahadur Shastri can be credited with changing the face of PMO.  He founded the Prime Minister’s Secretariat (PMS) with Bihar cadre ICS officer LK Jha its first head.  This was the first time the Prime Minister was assisted by a secretary rank officer instead of a joint secretary and his office started acting as a power centre. Jha had worked with Shastri in the Commerce Ministry earlier and they enjoyed a good rapport, which is why he was drafted into the PMS.  Jha wrote Shastri’s speeches and helped shape his ideas.  He became so powerful that he often overturned Shastri’s decisions.  When Shastri wanted to appoint LP Singh as Home Secretary, Jha opposed it and ensured he was not selected.  

Jha, by all accounts, was not a likeable personality whether in government or outside.  He was described as “a dictator with a British style of thinking”. He was said to be “Neither Indian, Nor Civil and Least of all Service.”.

The PMS got converted into PMO during Morarji Desai’s Janata Party rule.  In Indira Gandhi’s time, PN Haksar was very powerful yet his magnanimity endeared him to his colleagues.  Haksar was often referred to as Indira’s shadow – whether during the Bangladesh war or during the tumultuous events leading to the split in the Congress. 

Currently, Modi’s PMO emerges more powerful than any since PM Rajiv Gandhi’s years in office from 1984 to 1989, the last time when PMO enjoyed unquestioned primacy. PM Modi has learnt the lesson of centralization of power from Lee Kuan Yew, but this could prove to be the bane of an authoritarian PMO with sky high.  It means the government has been monopolised by one person who will have to shoulder the blame for all governance failures. But many experts argue that PM Modi has created his PMO in an amalgamation combining the Presidential and Westminster styles that would better serve the challenging needs of a new India. 


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