Portraits of Power: NK Singh's new book traces origin and growth of the PMO

‘The Portraits of Power’ recalls Singh’s various stints over the decades- starting from 1964 when he joined the IAS, serving at highest echelons of the government of India before taking a political plunge with a Rajya Sabha term.

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NEW DELHI: The ‘erosion’ in the primacy of the Cabinet Secretary vis a vis the Prime Minister’s Office, was not a Nehru era legacy but one that began when Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded him as Prime Minister in June 1964 with a decision that redefined the ‘fulcrum, the balance of power and governance architecture for decade to come’, writes veteran economist and bureaucrat N K Singh in his just released autobiography.

‘Portraits of Power’ recalls Singh’s various stints over the decades- starting from 1964 when he joined the IAS, serving at highest echelons of the government of India before taking a political plunge with a Rajya Sabha term.

He is currently the Chairman of the 15th Finance Commission.


N K Singh who served in the Prime Minister’s Office as Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Secretary from 1998-2001, closely traces the origin of the Prime Minister’s Office and its growing influence over the decades from the start under Shastri, to the all powerful PMO of Indira Gandhi era, the course correction under Morarji Desai, the 'altered' political equations of a 'low key' PMO under Dr Manmohan Singh and the Modi PMO which leads to a questioning of the Westminster model itself.

Nehru and Shastri - the birth of the PMO
Singh goes back to Hirubhai Mulljibhai Patel, of the Indian Civil Service who served as the principal private secretary to the first Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru.

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He notes, however, that Nehru’s ‘Prime Minister’s Secretariat’ was not significant since he believed in the “institutional structure of the Cabinet Office, which he had inherited”.

“In fact, in 1958–59, the strength of the PMS was reduced to 129, and in 1961, Nehru reduced it further to just over a hundred. This further strengthened the office of the cabinet secretary, who had legitimacy in his advisory role, considering that the rules of Allocation of Business (AoB) described his office as the secretary to the Council of Ministers”, Singh writes.

Things, however, changed when Laxmi Kant Jha, then Secretary Department of Economic Affairs was appointed for the first time as the first ‘Secretary’ to PM- by PM Shastri on 13 July 1964--- bringing a ‘spectacular difference in hierarchy’.

The PMS now got a distinct status with a new insertion in the Allocation of Business Rules, which had the following explanation for the PMS- ‘To provide secretarial assistance to the PM.’

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“This structural change permanently eroded the primacy of the cabinet secretary. …The PMS rose in importance while the office of the cabinet secretary continued to diminish. There have been variations over time in the distribution of power and authority, although the fundamental transition on that fateful day has never been reversed”, Singh writes.

He points to P N Haksar’s long years stint as Secretary to PM Indira Gandhi and how the concept of committed officers came increasingly into vogue and meritocracy took a back seat.

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“Haksar had convinced Mrs Gandhi that it was the only way to govern, subjugate and rise in stature. The days of ‘goongi gudiya’ (mute doll), a pejorative term used to describe her on her assumption of office, were now a far cry. She rose in stature as indeed did this model of governance”, writes Singh.

P N Dhar took charge as Secretary to Indira Gandhi in 1971 and the PMS soon acquired several joint secretaries reporting to either Dhar or Haksar leading to multiple layers of decision making disintegrated the chain of responsibility/accountability and led to the usual jostling for power and influence.

This era, he says, marked the near complete ‘emasculation of the Cabinet Office’ as the PMS now mirrored a ‘parallel government’ undercutting the basic constitutional framework and allowed a concentration of power in the PMS which was not intended or designed by the framers of the Constitution of India.

“The PM, thereafter, did not see files directly sent to him/her either by the Cabinet Office or by relevant ministers. Files were marked down to the concerned joint secretaries, who would then obtain orders from the principal secretary, depending on their importance and the allocative functions assigned between them. The PM would see the shadow notes recorded by the PMS official suggesting a decision or a course of action, beneath which the original file was usually kept. This gave the option to the PM to either read the full file or its more succinct version along with a proposed course of action by the senior official of the PMS. Creating a government within a government undercuts the basic constitutional framework. It nudges us in the direction of a presidential model not intended or designed by the framers of the Constitution of India”, N K Singh writes.

The issue was also raised in the electoral campaign of 1977 and when Morarji Desai succeeded Indira Gandhi in 1977, he took decisive steps to circumscribe the powers of the Secretariat.

Circumscribed PMO to a ‘low key’ one under 10 Janpath
Morarji appointed Vidya Shankar as the principal secretary in the PMO and ‘a degree of normalcy was restored’ with Cabinet Secretary N.K. Mukherjee assuming greater powers than his predecessors. The PMS was rechristened the ‘Prime Minister’s Office,’ to signal a course correction.

Rajiv Gandhi as PM brought in Bhalchandra Gopal Deshmukh as Secretary and the PMO once again became the most important hub of policy initiatives and the principal overseer of government functioning.

The PMO was more subdued under Vishwanath Pratap Singh, from December 1989 to November 1990 and power once again shifted to the cabinet secretary, then Vinod Chandra (V.C.) Pande who in effect also functioned as principal advisor to the PM and coordinated the functions of various ministries, Singh observes.

Chandra Shekhar followed and brought in S K Mishra of Haryana Cadre while Naresh Chandra became Cabinet Secretary- a short period when the balance between the Cabinet Office and the PMO was ‘restored’.

More ‘settled times’ came only in 1991-1996 under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao when the PMO was a critical centre for orchestrating economic reforms, necessitated by the Balance of Payments crisis.

Rao appointed Amar Nath Verma as his principal secretary whom Singh credits with managing complex dynamics and acting as a bridge between the Finance minister Manomohan Singh and the PM, amid sweeping economic reforms.

The Vajpayee era saw Brajesh Mishra as his principal secretary and Singh himself as his secretary.

Singh maintains that his own stint at PMO, was one which gave space.

“While the PM had given me general directions to look after all economic work, Brajesh ensured that this was implemented in letter and spirit. He gave me the requisite flexibility to work. He stood by the ones who had undertaken steps to implement the policies approved by the PM”, Singh explains.

Reference to 10 Janpath comes up on the period of Dr Manmohan Singh (May 2004–14) which saw a “somewhat low-profile PMO” under T.K.A. Nair and Pulok Chatterji “given the altered political configurations”.

“ The aura surrounding the power circuitry at 10 Janpath certainly masked the glory of the PMO left behind by Brajesh. It was generally believed that there was a substantial shift in key decision-making processes involving the Congress president’s office, even as the formal PMO role got diluted. It was no secret that significant power rested in the office of the Congress president and not the PMO. Any duality of power cannot serve the country well”, N K Singh who worked closely with Manomohan Singh during the 1991 reforms writes.

2014 on - Modi's PMO
Singh feels that the May 2014 election that started the Modi era, brought in a “new PMO whose complexion had changed”.

“ It reflects the personality and style as well as the implementational capabilities of the PM. The PMO has had the difficult task of coping with new challenges—the punishing schedule of PM Narendra Modi and, more importantly, the scrutiny and implementation of programmes and special initiatives undertaken by various ministries and entities”, Singh says commending Nripendra Misra, the former Principal Secretary.

He 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. While noting ‘PK’s rapport and unalloyed trust with the PM’, he points to the other important change in the Modi era-- the creation of a new of ‘principal advisor’, now occupied by Pradeep Kumar Sinha, the erstwhile cabinet secretary.

“The PKs—Mishra and Sinha—make for a harmonious cohesive team, lending support to the PM’s vision to make India an important global powerhouse. As I have written earlier, this continued for quite some time till the PMO became independent of the Cabinet Office. P.K. Sinha, having served as the cabinet secretary, is now the principal advisor to the PM; in a sense, therefore, providing continuity between the PMO and the Cabinet Office”, Singh wraps up on the PMO under Modi.

Singh also observes that the rise of the PMO raises issues of whether “a hybrid model combining the Presidential and Westminster styles would better serve the challenging needs of a new India”.

Referring to PM Modi’s second and overwhelming electoral victory in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the veteran economist takes the argument further on the Westminster model.

“It is not unnatural that critics find PM Modi’s style authoritarian, as we are witnessing a rise of dominant leaders all over the world, like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Boris Johnson, to mention a few. If the Westminster model is in terminal decline, so be it. In the end, what matters are the preferences expressed by the people through a democratic process and a renewal of their mandate through periodic elections”, Singh writes.
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