(Sample Material) Gist of IIPA Journal: Prime Minister’s Office - We Cannot and Need Not do Without IT B.G. Deshmukh

(Sample Material) Gist of Important Articles from IIPA Journal

Topic: Prime Minister’s Office - We Cannot and Need Not do Without IT B.G. Deshmukh


It is a reflection on the working of Government of India that whenever a new Prime Minister takes over, there is acute curiosity and also anxiety to see how the office attached to him, i.e. , the Prime Minister’s Office (popularly known as PMO) would be and how it develops further during his tenure. In normal scheme of things, the PMO is not a very significant part of the governmental machinery, like the Cabinet Secretariat or an important Ministry or Department; but over the years, the PMO, starting as a small Secretariat Unit attached to the first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, has grown into a high profile body. Many a time, it has usurped the powers of the Cabinet Secretariat and actively interfered with the working of various Ministries and Departments. It has not only come to represent the authority and power of the Prime Minister, but people who are part of the PMO had acquired power and authority of their own in the name of the Prime Minister. It is a curious phenomena, I think peculiar to India, that even godmen had come to be associated with the PMO. Successive Prime Ministers have made attempts to cut down the PMO to size and to reduce its influence, but after he had lasted as a Prime Minister for certain minimum period of time, the PMO had again come to assume much more authority and power than he originally intended.

What are the facts behind this phenomena? What should a PMO ideally be? What has happened to change its shape and what has given it the authority and aura which it has many a time come to assume? This is a very fascinating subject not only for administrators and bureaucrats but also for political scientists.

Fifty Years of Pmo Nehru Era

Let us start with the beginning. H.M. Patel, a distinguished member of the ICS was a Joint Secretary of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, who more or less functioned as Secretary in the de facto Cabinet Secretariat. He was also appointed as Principal Private Secretary to Panditji to help him deal with the activities of various departments. It appears that Panditji wanted to have a more powerful and well-staffed Secretariat of his own. But, apparently, he was persuaded to have a small personal office and to use Cabinet Secretariat for all purposes which he thought he would have liked to have a stronger personal Secretariat. It is very fascinating to read about these developments in India-The Transfer of Power, edited by Mansergs and Moon.

It is very necessary to make a mention of Cabinet Secretariat at the beginning of any discussion about the PMO as it is the latter which has come to overshadow the former not only in India but also in many other democracies as well. Ideally speaking, in a democracy of Westminster type, which we have adopted, the Cabinet is the apex political body and, therefore, Cabinet Secretariat is also the apex administrative and executive unit. The Cabinet Secretary is the head of the civil service and is also the chief coordinating authority in government, apart from being the Principal Advisor to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Dubhashi and Ramaiah, in their excellent article on “Role of Cabinet Secretariat” describe in detail the more important functions assumed by the Cabinet Secretariat. Really speaking, there should be no rivalry or confrontation between the Cabinet Secretariat and the PMO in a democracy of the Westminster type. In Britain, the PMO is usually a small office and it is the Cabinet Secretariat which really wields the coordinating power and authority of the Cabinet. It is to Panditji’s credit that during his long term of Prime Ministership, from 1947 to 1964, he had a very small personal office and the importance of the Cabinet Secretariat was in no way affected. He established a very healthy precedent for functioning of the PMO. His was a towering personality, both in his party and in government. He was also a visionary and had very clear ideas as to how the nation should develop in various fields—economic, political, social and international affairs. He had a good rapport with senior Secretaries of the Government. He was also a good administrator. He used the machinery of the Ministry of External Affairs which he was holding to get lot of his work done as Prime Minister. Yet he fully used the Cabinet Secretariat not only for coordinating the governmental work but also to ensure that the Cabinet functioned as an efficient unit and its decisions were implemented expeditiously and effectively. He down-graded the post of his Principal Private Secretary to the level of Joint Secretary, thereby ensuring clear authority and precedence to the Cabinet Secretary.

As already mentioned, Panditji got a good amount of his work done as a Prime Minister through the Ministry of External Affairs but this, could, by its very nature, be a very ad hoc arrangement peculiar to a Prime Minister. It is, therefore, quite clear that any Prime Minister would need a strong well-staffed office to help him discharge his duties. Not only this but also a PMO would reflect the authority and status of a Prime Minister. As I mentioned earlier, a Prime Minister in a democracy of a Westminster type is, at least theoretically, the first among equals. But over a period of years, this aspect has changed and changed substantially even in Britain. The Prime Ministership of Margaret Thatcher brings out the Prime Ministerial type of government in Britain more vividly.

Prime Ministerial Type of Government

The picture in India is in no way different, except for the present where a coalition is in position. Even though Panditji was a passionate believer in a democracy of the Westminster type, his towering personality in the Cabinet became quite apparent after the death of Sardar Patel. No doubt, the Cabinet system as such was functioning democratically, but his ascendancy was complete. Cabinet Ministers, who could not agree with his style of government, left him like John Mathai and B.R. Ambedkar. C.D. Deshmukh did the same but after creating a serious controversy about the functioning of Panditji’s Cabinet. Morarji did some attempt to stand up to him but was very cleverly neutralised under the Kamraj Plan. This trend about the Prime Ministerial type of Government in India was fully personified in Panditji’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, when she became the Prime Minister. After she split the party and got a massive majority in the 1971 General Elections, her position became un-assailable and more so after the Bangladesh war. Devkant Barua’s famous saying “Indira is India” put a seal on this picture.

It is necessary to emphasise this trend of the evolution to Prime Ministerial type of Government in India, if one is to study the functioning of PMO in India. There was an interregnum in this trend when the Janata Party Government, under Morarji Desai came to power in 1977. Even though a single-party Government, it was, in fact, a coalition Government. Morarji’s style of functioning was more democratic and collective than the imperious Prime Ministerial type of functioning of Indira Gandhi. Still he maintained the premier position of a Prime Minister when he asserted a Prime Minister’s right while dismissing his cabinet colleagues-Charan Singh and Raj Narayan. During her second term as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was a more mellowed person but not less imperious. Rajiv Gandhi brought a different approach to the functioning of the whole governmental and political system, with an open declaration on removing power-brokers which created lot of expectations of a more open and democratic government. There was every hope that unlike his mother, he will have a more collective and collegiate type of Cabinet system. Unfortunately, however, after sometime, even he reverted to the Prime Ministerial type of functioning. Just to give an example-the number of times he made changes in his Cabinet almost created a record. He was in a hurry to take the country on a fast track into the 20th Century and, therefore, did not mind pushing his Cabinet colleagues, many a time against their wish and judgement, on a path which he himself had decided upon.

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