Home/ Opinion / Columns/  Opinion | The PMO needs more power to achieve a $5 trillion economy

One of the criticisms levelled against the Narendra Modi government is that most things are micro-managed by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), with other ministers and ministries remaining mere support actors. Some commentators have said that Modi’s PMO is probably the most powerful after that of Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s and the 1980s.

Recent changes in the PMO’s power structure will do nothing to erase this impression. After the exit of Nripendra Misra, P.K. Mishra is the new principal secretary to the PM, and P.K. Sinha the new principal adviser. While the former can intervene in all cabinet and policy matters, the latter can coordinate policy issues with all ministries, barring those allocated to Mishra. Together with national security adviser Ajit Doval, who rules supreme in all matters relating to external and internal security, we now have a PMO triumvirate which rules the country under Modi.

Democrats may fret over the excessive concentration of power in a few hands, but this is the only formula that works for India. To get big things done, you need concentration of power and accountability. This is true as much of the states as the Centre. There is, thus, a case for a stronger PMO. It follows that there is a case for stronger chief ministers’ offices (CMOs) and mayoral offices (MOs).

Projects that are not guided from the top often meander into irrelevance or fail because there is simply no domain expertise in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS)-managed system, which works largely to protect its power. Outside expertise of any kind is seen as a threat. Unless experts are seen to be politically supported directly from the top, they are quickly shown the door or forced to become mere paper pushers.

If one looks at our big project successes in the past, all of them were headed by one competent person who reported directly to the political head of the government. The Golden Quadrilateral project under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was overseen by a minister of state (Maj. Gen. B.C. Khanduri), who derived his power directly from the PM/PMO. In Maharashtra, the late 1990s saw a flyover building spree under PWD minister Nitin Gadkari, who had a brilliant project head to ensure execution.

Big-ticket economic reforms under Narasimha Rao happened because of a few bureaucrats and technocrats, including A.N. Verma, who drew his power directly from the top. The Aadhaar project happened because Nandan Nilekani reported directly to the then PM, Manmohan Singh. Even under a weak PMO, this direct reporting structure was what helped bring Aadhaar to fruition. E. Sreedharan, the man behind Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro, would have struggled to deliver without direct access to prime ministers.

In undivided Andhra Pradesh, it was the CMO of Chandrababu Naidu which ensured the conversion of Hyderabad into Cyberabad—a software services alternative to Bengaluru. The latter itself became India’s Silicon Valley because of enlightened political leadership under S.M. Krishna, among others. In Gujarat, the Sabarmati waterfront scheme and the creation of an auto hub around Tata Motors and Suzuki was entirely the result of a powerful CMO under Modi.

An Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) is world class because the space programme comes directly under the PMO. If India could manage Pokhran-1 and Pokhran-2 with aplomb, this was because the department of atomic energy came directly under the PM. Contrast this with the relatively poor performance of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which is under the defence ministry and thus lacks the clout to get things done.

In the Mahabharata, before the great war of Kurukshetra, there is this story of both Arjuna and Duryodhana landing at Shri Krishna’s door to seek his help in the war. He was asleep, but when he woke up, he saw Arjuna first, and thus offered him the first pick: he could either have his services in his personal capacity, or his army. Arjuna chose Shri Krishna—and won the war. The Lord’s army was of little help in preventing Duryodhana’s defeat.

The moral of the story is this: The power of a key person is more important than an army of uncommitted foot-soldiers. In India, the bureaucracy exists only for itself, and works in silos. Its purpose is not the excellent execution of any project, which it anyway cannot do without the commitment of multiple stakeholders. This effectively means that if a job has to be done by any one ministry, it will fail or perform sub-optimally as rival departments do not fully buy into the idea.

The only office that can break the vice-like grip of incompetence and silo-based thinking is the PMO, which, by definition, can bash heads from all departments and force them to work together, or else…

The same applies to the CMO in states. India’s cities will become world beaters if the mayor’s office too is empowered and corporatized.

If we want to become a $5 trillion economy by 2024, only the PMO (aided by dynamic CMOs and MOs) can deliver it. The system itself is incapable of delivering the policies and programmes needed to make this happen.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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Updated: 17 Sep 2019, 11:07 PM IST
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