After taking oath on May 26, 2014, Narendra Modi gave overriding priority to push for a PMO-centric administrative control system. A day before his formal takeover (May 25), cabinet secretary Ajit Sethi asked all secretaries to be ready for a power point presentation for the new prime minister. It was a clear message that hereafter the PMO will be the nerve centre of administration.
Modi followed this up by asking the secretaries to keep the PMO informed of the activities in ministries over and above their ministers. He called a meeting of the joint secretaries and told them to contact the PMO if they had anything specially to convey. The contemporary media hailed such outright devaluation of the cabinet system as ‘toning up’ administration and injecting efficiency.
Little did they realise that all this was part of a project to autocratise the time-honoured system and vest the PMO with superpowers. As compulsive control freaks, all populist strong leaders have tried it with varying success. If the Modi project failed, it was due to its crude implementation and the inherent contradictions in the system.
I am everything (Mayi sarvamidam protam, Gita VII, 7
Five days after taking oath (May 31), Prime Minister Narendra Modi abolished the institution of the group of ministers (GoMs) and empowered group of ministers (EGoMs) which were crucial platforms for decision-making under the Manmohan Singh government. UPA (United Progressive Alliance) had as many as 68 GoMs and 14 EGoMs. Modi believed that such bodies only delayed decisions. On June 10, he also abolished the system of cabinet standing committees but retained the one on national security. This was in pursuance of the less-government-more-governance principle (Hindu Businessline, June 11).
However, irony has its own cruel ways. Within six months (November 10), the PM was forced to raise the number of the council of ministers from 46 to 66. This was partly due claims from some of the more serious ministerial aspirants. Administrative requirements were also among the factors. And on July 5, 2016, the PM had to expand the ministry further. This time the number shot up to 77—exceeding Manmohan Singh’s 71 by six ministers.
‘Matta Parataram, Naayam’ (I am supreme, none else - Bhagwat Gita, vii. 7) became the theme of Narendra Modi’s cabinet management model. All powers were concentrated in the PMO. Every non-routine decision had to be referred to the PMO for its formal approval. Department secretaries were directed to refer matters under consideration in the ministries directly to the PMO over and above their ministers.
Soon after this, the PM called the joint secretaries of the government in groups and asked them to keep in touch with the PMO on developments within their ministries. Later in June, the PM called a meeting of a group of senior secretaries without their ministers (Economic Times, June 26). Media had described this as formal ‘empowerment’of the bureaucrats and the PMO opening a ’second channel’ with the ministries and departments. In spite of the initial enthusiasm, the PM’s directives to the junior officers evoked a lukewarm response. This was because the hardened bureaucrats were smart enough to realise that direct reporting to the PMO tends to cut at the very roots of the cabinet system and the administrative line of command. It undermined the role of the cabinet secretary and the respective minister. Moreover, in the course of a future inquiry, they could be charged with infringing rules and procedures.
It all began as part of a massive image building for the prime minister even before he was sworn in. Contemporary media had highlighted Modi’s ‘can-do’ attributes and said he had a well-designed administrative matrix to redefine the role of the ministers and inter-relationship within the bureaucracy. And the PM was determined to enforce it. A day after taking charge as PM, he further espounded the theme of smart governance.
In his first address to his team of aides on May 27, he said the PMO would have a heavy schedule. He wanted to make it the nerve centre of decision-making (Indian Express, May 27). This entailed prompt work and heavy responsibility. The same day, he issued two more directives. On his orders, the personnel department directed the new ministers not to bring in relatives or dependants as personal staff. Instead, they should choose aides from the common pool. This was to avert allegations of power misuse and to bring in efficiency. As a follow-up, the department of personnel, quoting the PMO, sought information on June 14 as to whether any kith and kin worked with any minister in their personal staff (Hindustan Times, June 20). The order mentioned the PM’s determination to ‘clean up’ the working of the ministries.
The other directive of May 27 asked his ministerial colleagues to take to Twitter and Facebook to reach out to newer sections of people. The ministers should also take advantage of such tools to invite new ideas that would improve the working of their ministries. In pursuance of the May 27 order, the DoPT sent another note to the ministers on June 16. It asked them to check the antecedents of their personal secretaries and allied staff. On June 9, Modi directed his ministers not to appoint officers who worked under the former ministers. This covered those who were part of the staff under the Vajpayee government. On May 29, the PMO issued directives to all ministries to draw up a 100-day programme for toning up the administration and launching development programmes. The PMO would monitor the progress of the work in ministries (Times of India, May 30-9). Not only this. To put the ministers on toe, the PM would meet them one by one to understand their problems and assess their performance. His emphasis would be on strengthening the delivery system.
Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad came out with more details of Narendra Modi’s ‘dynamic administration model’. He told media on May 30 that unlike the earlier dispensations, the hallmark of the Modi government would be‘quick decisions and prompt implementation’. Ministers and bureaucracy would not be allowed to waste time in consultations and seeking approvals. Hereafter, he said, the government would be ‘PMO-driven’. The latter would keep a constant watch on the progress of work in ministries. The ministers should report their progress to the PMO and inform him of any snags they encounter. Similarly, the officials would also be obliged to directly contact the PMO in the event of any delay.
The PMO followed this up when the Principal Secretary Nripendra Misra (retired in September 2019)) directed secretaries in all ministries to report to the PMO about crucial decisions and seek time-bound approvals. They should send requests at their level (not at the minister’s) in ‘accurate and crisp’ language. At a meeting of the 70-odd department secretaries on June 4, Modi asked them to send him directly a list of regulations and procedures that could be scrapped to cut red tape in movement of files and approvals.“Give me 10 such procedures from each of the departments,” he asked them (IE, June 5). If they took their own initiative (over and above their ministers), the PM would fully stand by them. Some secretaries, however, pointed out that they had to be wary of constraints like RTI, investigations by enforcement agencies and courts when someone took matters to the judiciary. Modi listened to them and took note of such hurdles.
Two days later, the PMO followed it up by sending an 11-point note to all ministries and departments asking them to identify archaic rules and procedures and shorten the prescribed forms. They should also set goals for every department to tone up the administration. It had another set of rules like cleaning up the corridors of the ministerial offices and clear old furniture and stacks of papers on pathways and staircases. The PMO gave detailed instructions on keeping files and papers in their offices.
In a first, on June 2, the PM summoned all secretaries of the Government of India for a special meeting without their ministers and the cabinet secretary. During his hour-long address, Modi asked them to keep the PMO directly informed of the developments within the ministries. They must at their own levels get prior approval for the decisions from the PMO irrespective of the ministerial-level communications.
On his instructions, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced the government’s determination to grant approvals for as many as 285 investment projects involving Rs. 16 lakh crore. Modi blamed Manmohan Singh’s‘policy paralysis’ for such a massive waste. He vowed to scrap all such curbs within months. After his June 4 meeting, the PM called a special meeting of secretaries of a dozen ministries (without their ministers), such as petroleum, power, renewable energy, telecom, coal, shipping, aviation and roads as well as the chairman of the Railway Board. This was in the last week of June 2014 (ET, June 26). He asked them to prepare integrated infrastructure development plans. After the meeting, the secretaries hailed the PM’s deep knowledge on the subject.
There was another order from the PMO on June 27. It asked the secretary of Information and Broadcasting Ministry to keep a close watch on the social media trends and keep the PMO posted on the details on a day-to-day basis (IE, June 28). The same day the I&B Secretary acted by setting up a special team of 20 staff members. Their job was to scan the sites and prepare detailed reports. On June 30, Modi asked the PIB (Press Information Bureau) to send him clippings of media reports under seven separate heads. This should cover both positive and negative reports.
There was another PMO activism. On July 6, it asked the Kolkata Port Trust to furnish details of how unauthorized agents were carrying out operations leading to loss of revenue for the government. Within days (July 10), a perturbed Shipping Ministry instructed KoPT to start open auction process for on-shore cargo handling (IE, July 8 and The Hindu, July 12 ). On July 6, the PM sent a separate directive to the Railway Minister directing him to introduce WiFi in more trains and report back on the progress in a month.
By the time everyone in the government realized that the PMO had emerged as an epicentre of all administrative activities. In many cases, the centralization of decision-making and too many instructions had led to utter confusion. For instance, the PMO had to issue as many as four directives in quick succession, each amending the other, on the appointment of personal secretaries and officers on special duty of the ministers. The first was soon after the swearing in ceremony on May 26 banning relatives for the posts.
On June 19 came another circular saying that no one from the former UPA ministers’ staff should be appointed. On July 8, there was one more circular clarifying that the ban pertained only to the private staff and not those in government service. One more circular appeared on July 23 further clarifying that the Group D and C staff were exempt from the ban.
And South Block was flooded with complaints and queries. On July 15, the petroleum ministry referred the contentious issue of RIL gas prices to the PMO for directions. Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda said he had requested the PMO to take a call on the fare and freight hike in the railways. On July 20, the Mines Ministry asked the PMO how to dispose of the large number of pending applications for mining lease. This was after Modi had summoned Minister Narendra Singh Tomar on June 27 to seek an explanation on the pending decisions. In early July, rural development minister Nitin Gadkari had sent a set of proposals for the PMO’s approval (ET, July 7).
Apparently, over-centralization had begun causing delays in decision-making. Apart from accumulated requests and clarifications piling up at the PMO, at times ministries and departments made delayed approvals from the PMO as an excuse for their own faults. Media reports on July 28 talked of confusion created on the issue of a cabinet note. The PMO wanted to know how this happened without its knowledge. In another case, the External Affairs Ministry was taken by surprise on the PM’s decision to defer his visit to Japan (IE, July 28.
Possibly, Modi himself was not aware of the severe mismatch caused by the large piles of pending decisions at his PMO. In one case, finance minister Arun Jaitley complained to Modi about the delays in ministries even on routine matters due to pending files at the PMO. Startled at the revelations, Modi acted fast. The result was a PMO circular in August (2014) setting definite deadlines for sending requests by the ministries and approvals by the PMO officials (ToI).
The biggest hurdle was regarding cabinet notes. Earlier, the ministries could circulate cabinet notes to other ministries for comments and objections. These are then sent to the cabinet for approval. After Modi became PM, the PMO insisted that the ministries should first send the comments by other ministries and the note to the PMO before forwarding them to the cabinet (HT, April 24, 2015). This also caused undue delays at the PMO. After the PM’s intervention, the PMO set a three-day deadline for approvals. In the case of cabinet notes, the ministries could send the inputs to the cabinet directly in case there was no response from the PMO in three days. Similarly, it also set deadlines for other offices. Along with this, the PMO has asked all ministries and departments to forward a copy of the draft cabinet notes to the PMO (ET, September 11, 2015).
The diminishing role of ministers was only one side of the PMO-led governance. At times, there were signs of mistrust of their very integrity. This was aggravated by a few cases of leakages of cabinet papers. Details relating to a very friendly corporate house had allegedly landed at the door of a rival. A minister was the suspect. Some such adverse details had also appeared in the media.
The biggest media leak pertained to stories on the petroleum ministry. A worried PMO then decided that cabinet papers should thereafter be handed to the ministers and officials only half an hour before the meeting right at the conference table. Soon the PMO came up with a brighter idea: to switch over to the Kindle tablet (IE, February 17, 2015). On February 12, 2017, Modi asked his ministerial colleagues to give details of tours undertaken by them during the last three months (ToI, February 13. The idea was to check if the ministers really visited the places to promote the government initiatives.
In August 2017, the PM got a bunch of papers containing the misdemeanours of his ministers, including some senior ones. The allegations included liaison with undesirable elements and accepting luxurious and ostentations hospitality. Aghast at this, Modi immediately directed his ministers not to accept such favours and asked them not to stay at five-star hotels (ToI, August 20).
Narendra Modi’s well publicized directive to government officials to directly approach the PMO with their creative suggestions led to a flood of representations. When it became unmanageable, the PMO tried to reverse the directive. It asked DoPT to issue an order (August 2015) to the officers concerned saying such representations should be made as per the rules that existed in June 2013 (ToI, September 2, 2015). The pre-Modi rules said that those who directly approached the government over and above their superiors with grievances and suggestions would be liable to disciplinary action. Many of those who honestly followed the PM’s original directive found themselves in trouble.
Take the case of Pashupathi Rao of the Nuclear Fuel Complex (ET, March 13, 2027). On September 28, 2014, Rao sent a few constructive suggestions to the PMO on streamlining a number of facilities at Kota. Instead of appreciation, what Rao got was disciplinary proceedings. The PMO official marked the documents ‘grievances’ and forwarded them to the Department of Atomic Energy, his employer. In fact, his was not a ‘grievance’ but a constructive proposal. Yet the DAE went ahead with the disciplinary proceedings as it had come from the PMO.
Reality dawned on the PMO when it encountered objections from different departments. Defence and paramilitary forces were the first to take up the issue with the PMO. They argued that if members of the forces start directly complaining to the PMO against their superiors, it would disrupt the line of command and invite indiscipline. This was followed by scientific research institutions under the government. And within a year (August 17, 2015) Cabinet Secretary P.K. Sinha had to issue strict instructions that all such communication be routed through the head of departments— not directly to the PMO (ET, August 25 –28).
Clearing deadwood in the bureaucracy was Modi’s next campaign theme. The first note on July 25 (2014) from the Cabinet Secretariat asked the I&B and Department of Information Technology to ‘map’ all their employees and create a database (IE, July 26-30, 2014). This covered all ministries, subordinate offices and field staff. The details would then be matched with the Aadhar. Every department had to feed their staff details into an Excel format. The digital mapping of 3.5 million employees would provide ready details of the employees’ records like attendance and performance. Sadly, this grandiose plan also eventually got stuck.
The writer is a Delhi-based veteran journalist who has been covering politics since the late 1970s. The views are personal.