Autumn Number 2019

How Bureaucracy Gains Power

Prime Minister's Office in India

Himanshu Roy

The role and the development of the Prime Minister's Office (henceforth PMO) has rarely been the subject of focused in academic work. At best, it has been referred to as chapters in the books on the prime ministers or discussed in the biographies. Its growth, acquiring importance, functions, internal structure and its dynamics with different ministries or cabinet secretariat have least been researched. More importantly, its business rules, its functioning as staff agency have been neglected in methodical research by the academia. Also, to add, Nehru, and subsequently, other Prime Ministers have used the PMO as policymaking centre.

There are wide number of works1 on Prime Ministers, both academic and biographies. M O Mathai (1978), Sarla Malik (1984), M G Gupta (1989), S Gopal (1989), Bidyut Sarkar (1989), Madhu Limaye (1989), P N Dhar (2000), P C Alexander (2004), B N Tandon (2006), Sanjay Baru (2014), A S Dulat (2015), Jairam Ramesh (2018), etc., are few prominent writers whose books may be mentioned here. But, as said earlier, there are rarely any book which exclusively focused on the PMO. Few articles in research journals or chapters in the books, however, are available which focus on the PMO. P N Dhar (1989a), B G Deshmukh (1997a), Nirmal Mukherjee (1996a), etc., maybe referred for their times.

The office of the Prime Minister in India began to acquire importance from 1951, particularly after the death of Vallabhbhai Patel, Deputy Prime Minister of India, in 1950. Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister, had attempted to assert his office, but it was contested by Patel. Both of them had complained to Gandhi about each other's style of functioning. Nehru had argued that 'by virtue of his office (he) was more responsible than anyone else for the general trends of policy and it was his prerogative to act as coordinator and supervisor with a certain liberty of direction. This meant that, if necessary, he should intervene in the functioning of every ministry though this should be done with tact and with knowledge of minister concerned. It would be impossible for him to serve as Prime Minister if this overriding authority were challenged or if any minister took important decision without reference to the Prime Minister or the cabinet'.2

Patel, on the contrary, had argued that once the cabinet had adopted a decision 'it was for each ministry to implement the decisions of the cabinet; and the Prime Minister's responsibility was mere to see that there was no conflict between ministries'.3 The ministry was responsible to the cabinet in the collective system of governance and the Prime Minister was the coordinator. It was the cabinet which was supreme and was to guide the ministries. The interference of the Prime Minister in the functioning of the ministry, therefore, was unjustified. Conclusively, while Patel was emphasising on the cabinet form of government, Nehru's due emphasis was on the Prime Minsiterial form of government.

The death of Gandhi brought a partial rapprochement between the two for the next 3 years. Patel's failing health and Nehru's strategic retreat restrained their differences to conflagrate. The death of Patel and the result of first Lok Sabha election, however, changed the balance of power in favour of Nehru within the government and in the party. He began to intervene more in the functioning of the ministries. The Prime Ministerial form of government, instead of the Cabinet form of the government, had begun to emerge. And it had the resultant impact on the growth of the Prime Minister's Office.

The role of the PMO, earlier known as the Prime Minister's Secretariat (henceforth, PMS) during the tenure of Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and first term of Indira Gandhi, has been changing since 1947 partly due to the requirements of the changing times partly due to the personalities of the Prime Ministers, and of their relations with the cabinet colleagues. Nehru's Principal Private Secretary (henceforth, PPS) H V R Iyenger or M O Mathai, Special Assistant, wielded influential power after the death of Patel. Nehru, however, let the cabinet function. His PPS was of the rank of Additional Secretary. But Nehru initiated the tradition to let the PPS attend the meetings of the cabinet which began to damage the bureaucratic hierarchy as till then it was only the cabinet secretary who was entitled to attend the cabinet meetings.4

PMS became more powerful under the Prime Ministership of Lal Bahadur Shastri who had earlier worked in it during the last years of Nehru as minister without portfolio. Shastri had appointed L K Jha as PPS with the rank of Cabinet Secretary who had played an important role in signing the Kutch Agreement between Indian and Pakistan.5

Then came Indira Gandhi who transformed the PMS. Limaye had charged that she ran the PMS as super agency that dictated, ordered different ministries and weakened the civil services and cabinet form of government.6 Morarji Desai attempted to restore the role of the PMS to its original design; for which he even changed its name to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), reduced its organisational size and curtailed its bureaucratic interference in the functioning of the ministries.

Return of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1980 and subsequently the election of Rajiv Gandhi as her successor once again brought back the importance of PMO. B G Deshmukh, who joined PMO during Rajiv years, however, had remarked that it's the ministers and the non-civil servants (advisors) in the PMO who act out of way to appropriate the powers of the other ministries. The civil servants act in professional way within their mandate.

After Rajiv Gandhi's tenure, India entered into the era of coalition governments; no single party had the required majority in the Lok Sabha to form the government at its own. The members of the Lok Sabha of the like- minded parties formed the governments which continued from 1989 to 2014. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] secured the majority to form the government at its own. This had its impact on the political stature of the Prime Minister and of his Office. Except for the tenure of A B Vajpayee, no Prime Minister and his Office commanded the aura of authority in the coalition years. The period reflected a PMO which was not overarching leading to larger degree of autonomy to the cabinet and to aka ministries. During Vajpayee tenure, Brajesh Mishra, his Principal Secretary (PS) who was also appointed as the National Security Advisor played a dominant role in many policy formulations and their application. Senior ministers, however, enjoyed considerable degree of functional autonomy, and cabinet functioned as a collective body.

During the Prime Ministership of Manmohan Singh, the PMO remained in lowkey as the other power centre was the Office of Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress. Pulok Chatterjee, the Joint Secretary in the PMO, was the link between the two. A S Dulat, the ex- secretary, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had remarked that in the PMO during the tenure of Manmohan Singh "There always seemed to be a lot of wrestling going on."8

Since 2014, Narendra Modi took over the Prime Ministership, the PMO has once again gained the stature best reflected in the manner of appointment of P K Mishra as his Additional Principal Secretary (APS). In addition to it, the PMO brought the appointment of personal staff of the ministers including the Officers on Special Duty (OSD) under the purview of the Cabinet Committee on Appointment.9

This trajectory of 70 years, from August 1947, reflects the changing the context of the time, and the powers and functions of the PMO. Also, from Nehru to Modi, the PMO has been the extension of their personalities.

The PMO is a government department, not a constitutional body, referred in the Government Business Rules, 1961. It is headed by Principal Secretary (PS) who serves at the pleasure of the PM unlike the other government servants who serve at the pleasure of the President or Governors. The post has, mostly, been occupied by Indian Administrative Service Officers and Indian Foreign Service Officers. Below the PS, there is APS, Additional Secretaries (AS), Joint Secretaries (JS), OSD, Directors and other officers. The NSA is also part of the PMO. In addition to them, there are ministers, media advisors, political advisors, scientific advisors of different ranks.

The overall number of the staff in the PMO has been changing. The maximum number was during Vajpayee years (400)10 and the minimum was during the early years of Nehru's Prime Ministership (146). During Morarji's tenure, it was 203 less than Indira years (242) and Rajiv years (388). At present, it is 397.11

The PMO is, essentially, a staff agency to provide secretarial assistance to the Prime Minister. But its role has changed over the decades. Unlike the British Prime Minister, the Indian Prime Ministers, from the Nehru years, have been holding the charges of different ministries, for example of Department of Space, Atomic Energy, etc. In addition to it, the PS maybe sought advice at the spur of the moment, in between the meetings.12 Or, in the address of different political, non-political meetings, the Prime Ministers seek briefings and inputs. The most important, however, is the making or impacting the making of the policies or guiding the ministries in the policymaking which earlier was essentially the job of the ministries and of the Cabinet. This has been the decisive shift in the role of the PMO which emerged in major way after the death of Patel.

The British parliamentary system had relied more on the parliamentary and, later on, on the cabinet form of government in its evolutionary trajectory. The Prime Ministerial form of government emerged in post second world war years. But even now, it does not command so much of power and importance the way the Indian Prime Ministerial form of government does which emerged after 1950.

Nehru had the preference for the Prime Ministerial form rather than for the Cabinet form of government. His long tenure and the emergence of Prime Ministers from his family ensured the development of Prime Ministerial form of government. It resulted into the development of a powerful PMO which acquired the role and importance of a super cabinet despite the emergence of Prime Ministers from the non-Nehru family or from the non-Congress Party. Possibly, in the globalised economy the bigger role of the PMO has become inevitable.

References :
1.      M O Mathai, Reminiscence of the Nehru Age (New Delhi: Vikas, 1978); Sarla Malik, Prime Minister of India: Powers and Functions (Pilani: Chinta Prakashan, 1984); M G Gupta, The Prime Ministers of India (Agra: M G Publishers, 1989); Madhu Limaye, Cabinet Government in India (New Delhi: Radiant Publisher, 1989); Bidyut Sarkar(ed.), P N Haksar: Our Times and the Man (New Delhi: Allied, 1989); V A Pai Panandikar and Ajay K Mehra, The Indian Cabinet (New Delhi: Konark, 1996); B.G. Deshmukh, "Prime Minister's Office—We Cannot and Need not Do Without It", Indian Journal of Public Administration, No. 3, July-September 1997; P.N. Dhar, Indira Gandhi, the Emergency and Indian Democracy (New Delhi: OUP, 2000); P.C. Alexander, Through the Corridors of Power: An Insider's story (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2004); B G Deshmukh, From Poona to the Prime Minister's Office: A Cabinet Secretary Looks Back (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2004); B N Tandon and Sanjay Baru, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh (New Delhi: Penguin, 2014); A S Dulat with Aditya Sinha, Kashmir, The Vajpayee Years (Noida: Harper Collins, 2015); Jairam Ramesh, Intertwined Lives: P N Haksar and Indira Gandhi (New Delhi: S&S, 2018)
2.      See G Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (abridged edition) (New Delhi: OUP, 1989), p.194; also, S. Gopal (ed.), Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, vol. 5, pp.472.
3.      Ibid., p.319.
4.      S R Maheshwari, Indian Administration (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1968), p.25.
5.      J C Johari, Indian Polity: A Concise Study of the Indian Constitution, Government and Politics (New Delhi: Lotus Press, 2004), p.80.
6.      Madhu Limaye, op. cit., p.113.
7.      B G Deshmukh, op. cit., p.255
8.      A S Dulat, op. cit., p. 274.
9.      Times of India, New Delhi, June 17, 2014.
10.   India Today, April 2, 2001, p.24;
12.   P C Alexander, op.cit, p.149.

[Himanshu Roy, Senior Fellow, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Fellowship, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi]

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019