As one takes a hard look at the last two years of the Modi administration, while there have been some disappointments in terms of pending promises, there have been significant achievements, which would be of huge value to any economy. This piece looks at these achievements through the lens of IAS officers in the all-powerful PMO and check whether it is indeed “the worst PMO ever”, as was averred by one of India’s most influential commentators, Arun Shourie. Moreover, it tries to, as an outsider with some inside perspective, analyse the major leitmotif underlying the working of the PMO, what drives it and what its drawbacks may be.
First, unarguably, this PMO is a reflection, and has the unmistakable stamp, of India’s first presidential prime minister, Narendra Modi. The campaign he led was a remarkable success. It was a presidential campaign and as such it is no surprise that the broad complexion of the PMO is of a strong and presidential one that excels in driving the ministries to perform.
One example alone would drive home the point of the benefits of the PM’s strong, authentic leadership. His global outreach is not just giving India the moral high ground abroad, which has significant benefits at the global roundtable, but is also powering economic diplomacy of a rare kind. It is hardly known that the Rs 90,000-crore Ahmedabad-Mumbai High Speed Rail Link is happening as a result of a loan at 0.1 per cent interest over a 50-year time period from Japan, and this is because of the personal relationship that the PM fostered with the Japanese!
Second, for the first time ever, the PMO is a collection of officers and private sector staff of extraordinarily high integrity—high performers who bring to the table skills that are mutually exclusive but collectively exhaustive. Each has been handpicked for a certain skill or specialised knowledge and given the freedom to conceive and deliver. So, while the PM paints the big picture, takes quick decisions and debottlenecks obdurate ministries (and ministers), the officers build consensus and persuade the ministries to own projects and deliver. These are all firsts for any PMO ever. PMOs in the past have usually followed the bell curve when it comes to officers, but in this one, almost all of them exceed it.
Third, almost every single officer in the PMO is like electricity, invisible but indispensable, and they are on all the time. Each one has performed exceptionally, and that should be recognised and quietly appreciated.
Principal secretary to prime minister Nripendra Mishra, 72, works 24x7x365—untiringly, more than most officers half his age. His strengths are his ability to bang heads inside a room and take quick decisions on file. For example, in a matter of four meetings, he restarted the famous Enron power project by getting RGPPL, railways, power ministry and the Maharashtra government to come on one page. Today, the plant produces 500 MW. More importantly, this prevented IDBI and SBI loans of over Rs 5,000 crore from becoming NPAs!
Additional principal secretary P.K. Mishra, regarded as the PM’s alter ego, and additional secretary Bhaskar Khulbe make a kind of Kohli-Gayle partnership, where the latter is the resident Wikipedia on everything human resources. They do what Jim Collins called “Get the wrong people off the bus, get the right people on the bus”. Their unique 360-degree multi-source feedback model is exceptional and has led to another major achievement of this government: almost zero corruption in high places. Be it government or judiciary or defence or PSUs or banks or the CBI, they have ensured officials of integrity and competence occupy key decision-making positions, leading to a massive clean-up of large procurements. For the first time, officials sitting anywhere in India can aspire for key positions, without need for patronage. They have been wringing out corruption like muck from a dirty towel and this government has not got as much credit for eradicating corruption as the preceding ones got criticism for the corruption.
T.V. Somanathan, A.K. Sharma, Tarun Bajaj, Anurag Jain and Debashree Mukherjee form the brains trust of the PMO. Their exceptional intellect and attention to detail powers the PMO’s ideas, coordination among ministries and outstanding execution.
Take the top 20 initiatives of the government and how they will game-change India. UDAY has bound the states to a hard-budget constraint and the debt of power utilities brought within the overall FRBM envelope; HELP, the new hydrocarbon exploration policy, will help India reduce its dependence on imports significantly and assist domestic user industry; the India-Mauritius Treaty, renegotiated to prevent round-tripping of black money, will have a salutary impact on corruption; the razor-sharp follow-up of PM’s economic engagements abroad, leading to an unprecedented $63 billion of FDI in 2016, overtaking China; a new Global Convention Centre has come up in Pragati Maidan; and evenstalled infrastructure projects have been restarted.
Exceptional progress was made in resolving knotty issues—OROP and Kisan crop insurance programme—besides the DBT and Aadhaar Act, which has already saved $3 billion in its first year of operations by targeting a very small fraction of subsidies to start with. Significant changes were made to environmental laws for affordable housing and all states were brought on board to modify building bylaws for it; a proposal to create 20 world-class universities and exempt them from the tyranny of UGC and AICTE will have huge multiplier effects on the economy.
The ongoing repeal of over 1,000 archaic laws, which were responsible for slowdown in decision-making and entailed corruption; the tough Swachh Bharat Mission; restructuring the Medical Council of India; total autonomy to scientific, space and research institutions—each one of these has been a minefield and was pushed by the PMO in the face of stiff opposition. And each one is a game-changer with huge payoffs for the economy—something that is not often widely appreciated.
All these initiatives were owned, designed and powered by individual ministries, under the guidance of a watchful, not interfering PMO. Similarly, the Group of Secretaries reports on a roadmap for India on a continual basis, while PRAGATI is used effectively to craft, coordinate, collaborate and build consensus on new policy designs, bringing on board both the states and the Union ministries.
A bunch of young, dynamic directors—some IAS, some from the private sector, and all highly competent and full of new ideas and initiatives—are the system’s lifeblood, bringing policy, consulting, finance, technology and entrepreneurship experiences to the PMO. The PM’s personal staff and the PMO’s professional staff are accessible to all, open to ideas and experts at reaching outside the system to get the best thought leadership, wherever that may be, and then building consensus around it.
There have been some key disappointments, no doubt: the GST Bill, due to legislative deadlock; the limited progress on the exciting Digital India vision that was painted by the PM himself, especially with respect to citizens’ services by separating the point of decision of a government service from the point of delivery by using technology or the spread of high-speed mobile internet and Bharat Net; the Ganga cleaning mission; water-grid management; agriculture and rural development management; slow improvements on World Bank’s Doing Business indicators, especially with respect to contracts (that involve courts), to name a few.
All this, however, shouldn’t take away from the successes that all ideologically neutral, right-thinking citizens should cherish as strong steps being taken towards building an economically strong India. The good news is this is being led by a government where a modern, efficient and knowledgeable PMO is Primus Inter Pares, powered by values and driven by intellect (and not the other way around!). Sadly, the darkness all around—the debilitating environment—forces one to light a candle so that the true achievements as well as the disappointments can be seen in its light. Indeed, is this the worst PMO ever?
(The author is an IAS officer. Views expressed are personal.)
Just four months in power, the PMO ordered the MoEF to make 60 changes in green project clearance norms. Most of it was done before Modi finished a year in office. The changes had been decided at a meeting of the principal secretary to the PM with the secretaries for petroleum and natural gas, coal, steel, power, road transport, highways and shipping. The 1986 green law gives the Centre the power to change norms simply by executive fiat.