New structure at the PMO

Topics PMO

The office of the principal secretary to the prime minister is less than 50 years old. It was created in 1971, when Indira Gandhi designated Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar as her principal secretary. Haksar occupied that post from December 1971 to February 1973. After him, 11 more principal secretaries have served Indian prime ministers. 

Last week, Pramod Kumar Mishra was named the principal secretary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He succeeded Nripendra Misra, who had occupied that job for more than five years from May 2014. 

In the process, P K Mishra became the 13th person on that list of principal secretaries to the prime minister in the last half a century. 

Principal secretaries to the prime minister play a key role in the government. They help the prime minister navigate the complex world of administration and ensure that the government’s political and economic mandates are carried out by the bureaucracy, and even by the ministers. They play both advisory and executive roles. 

The tenure of a principal secretary is no clear indication of how effective he has been in the government system. TKA Nair, the longest serving principal secretary in the last 50-odd years (7 years 4 months) may not be remembered for his effectiveness. But those with relatively short tenures as principal secretary seem to have made a bigger impact on governance — Haksar (15 months — though this was preceded by a four-year stint as secretary to the PM) and B G Deshmukh (eight months with Rajiv Gandhi and 12 months with V P Singh). 

There are, of course, exceptions in P C Alexander (three years and eight months with Indira Gandhi), Amar Nath Verma (almost five years with P V Narasimha Rao) and Brajesh Mishra (six years and two months with Atal Bihari Vajpayee), who left a mark on the functioning of their respective governments. Of course, Brajesh Mishra was also the national security advisor and hence had a greater impact on governance. 

Others who occupied this prestigious post include V Shankar for two years and three months, S K Mishra for just six months, T R Satishchandran for one year, N N Vohra for eight months and Pulok Chaterji for two years and seven months. 

What is clear from the long list of principal secretaries is that prime ministers broadly like the idea of strengthening their office with senior bureaucrats in that position. All prime ministers in the last 50 years, except Charan Singh, had got a principal secretary in their office. 

Even Morarji Desai, who was critical of the idea of a strong prime minister’s office had actually appointed V Shankar as his principal secretary. The changes he brought about were purely cosmetic. Desai changed the name of his office — Indira Gandhi would describe it as Prime Minister’s Secretariat (PMS), but Desai called it Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The total staff strength in Indira Gandhi’s PMS was 229. Desai brought it down to 211 for his PMO. And by 2016, Modi expanded his PMO strength to 397. 

Given this background, what can P K Mishra do to leave his own mark on the PMO? He has two distinct advantages. One, he has already had the experience of having worked in the PMO for about five years as additional principal secretary to the PM. He will be like Haksar, who also moved into the principal secretary’s shoes after having spent four years as secretary in Indira Gandhi’s secretariat. For P K Mishra, it may be a new designation, but he is not new to the PMO and already knows the system. 

The second advantage for him would be that he would not have to deal with an additional principal secretary under him, unlike his immediate predecessor, Nripendra Misra. With an additional principal secretary in place, Misra had to share a part of his responsibilities with P K Mishra. In bureaucracy, this also meant dilution of power. 

In the current dispensation, the new principal secretary may not be required to share any part of his responsibilities as there is no additional principal secretary. Yes, Pradeep Kumar Sinha is now in the PMO, but his designation is principal advisor to the PM. It is not yet clear what this new designation means and whether the change in designation is an outcome of a need to prevent any dilution of jurisdictional powers of the principal secretary. 

By its very definition, the role of a principal advisor to the PM cannot be the same as that of an additional principal secretary. Once the new responsibilities of the principal advisor are known, there will be some clarity on what the new power equations and the arrangements for sharing of responsibilities will be in the PMO under P K Mishra. 

But make no mistake about it. With P K Mishra as principal secretary and Sinha as principal advisor, the PMO has got a new structure and it would not be similar to what it was in the last five years. How different it would be and whether it would make the PMO more effective, only time will tell.

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