Know thy PMO: How powerful is the office really and how does it function?

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has often been described as all-powerful; the latest example of its influence was demonstrated by the swift cancellation of the fake news norms by the information and broadcasting ministry. The PMO stepped in and the controversial guidelines were withdrawn. The PMO is indeed powerful, we learnt once again, though by definition it is only meant to provide secretarial assistance to the PM. But how powerful is the office really and how does it function? A proactive disclosure by the government under the Right to Information Act (RTI) throws open a vast universe, that is the PMO.

Operating mainly from the South Block and the PM’s residence at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, along with offices at Rail Bhavan and Parliament House, the PMO functions through some 25 sections, ranging from establishment to administration, cash to anti-corruption units. Work is distributed in clockwise precision, making one believe nothing can go wrong. If establishment section is about hiring and confirmation of staff, it also manages the nuts and bolts of the vigilance work of the PMO, apart from allotment of accommodation under "key officials’ quota" and Hindi teaching scheme.

Celebration of days of national importance (read birth and death anniversaries of leaders) figures as an important work under the administration wing. Work related to PMO security too is handled by this section. Administration at this office also covers matters related to leave travel allowance, salary advance, conveyance purchase allowance, festival advance and the list goes on. 

Next is the general section, tackling modernisation of office to purchase and hiring of staff cars, motorcycles and even three-wheelers. Procurement and maintenance of furniture, stationery, office equipment too are part of the general section. The surprising bit is the continuing focus on typewriters, fax machines, photocopiers, franking machines and shredding machines, despite the digital wave. It is this section that manages the telecom needs of the PMO—MTNL phones, PBX exchange, cellular phones, intercom and internet lines. Also, the general section looks after the cleanliness of all rooms including the PM’s. Despatching the PM’s greeting cards is also part of its portfolio.

Move on to the cash section for a rundown on the overall budget related activities, and the anti-corruption unit to deal with complaints against public servants. Then there’s ‘dak’ (postal) unit to receive, open and sort out all mail and communication including classified, unclassified, greetings addressed to the PM. It is here that all ministries and government departments send their files to.

The despatch and night duty section tells you that there are people attending phone calls after office hours and "taking appropriate action". Interestingly, safe custody of the duplicate keys of the security locks of the rooms in the South Block is an elaborately described function of the night duty section. It also handles routing of letters and files between the South Block, Rail Bhavan and Parliament House. 

The disclosures also show that the PMO’s documentation section works closely with the National Archives of India for appraisal of recorded files of permanent nature. These files are typically more than 25 years old. The consultation between the two organisations helps decide whether a file should be retained in the PMO or transferred to the National Archives.

The next few sections deal with ministries in a systematic grouping, before you reach the Hindi unit. It is here that clippings of important news are prepared. National and international news relevant to the PMO is selected here and submitted to the PM’s staff. All this while a 24-hour news scanner is buzzing so that there’s no delay in circulating it to the PM. The many speeches of the PM are also maintained by the Hindi section. A dedicated north-east cell takes care of matters related to the region as well as announcements linked to Jammu and Kashmir.

Called ‘NGO’, this section deals with everything that’s "top secret" and confidential in the government. Custody, movement, retrieval and issue of all top secret communication and internal notes, is how the section’s profile has been described. It could be communication with Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs, Cabinet Committee on Security or Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. Tour programmes of the PM within India also go out from the ‘NGO’ section.

While the Parliament division handles work related to anything and everything related to Parliament, it also maintains a list of VVIPs (mainly formers PMs and governors) for the PM to send them birthday greetings. Up next, the political section looks all powerful, dealing with correspondence with heads of states of foreign countries, the PM’s foreign trips as well as overseas visits by cabinet ministers, chief ministers and MPs. Anything from diplomatic appointments to matters related to IB, RAW, SPG too are processed by the political section of the PMO.

However, the biggest chunk of the work at the PMO seems to be spread across four sections focused on ‘public’, besides another four on ‘funds’. Petitions, complaints and anonymous letters written by the general public to the PM are entertained at these public sections, the disclosures claim. But does it work?

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