Unraveling the working of India’s most powerful office

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has often evoked a sense of intrigue and awe among many in India. Considered as one of the most powerful offices in the country, it has been associated with unbridled power by those who view it from the outside

Lekshmi Parameswaran Mar 02, 2020
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The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has often evoked a sense of intrigue and awe among many in India. Considered as one of the most powerful offices in the country, it has been associated with unbridled power by those who view it from the outside. But former civil servant Jarnail Singh’s book ‘With Four Prime Ministers: My PMO Journey’ (Konark Publishers) offers a rare and different insight into how an office that is vested with so much power is not above well laid down rules.  

Having had the opportunity to work in the PMO as Joint Secretary for eight years with four prime ministers - H. D. Deve Gowda, I. K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh - the author has provided an impassioned account of his journey. 

Despite the commendable achievement, the author’s triumph lies in the fact that he was not clouded by the power he held and has presented an objective view of the PMO without letting the towering personalities of the prime ministers take over the narrative.

From the very first page, Singh is clear that PMO was established to provide secretarial assistance to the prime minister and its mandate can never go beyond that. His stress on the PMO being a "zero-error office" where the authenticity of facts and figures are checked and rechecked forces one to see PMO in a new light – one that is devoid of the spicy stories of the unchecked influence that the office enjoys.  Singh makes it a point to state time and again that no person or institution is above rules and regulations. It is this core belief of a bureaucrat who chooses to remain modest throughout his journey that makes one understand that bureaucracy is indeed the backbone of any nation.

Starting his stint at the PMO with Prime Minister Deve Gowda, Singh appreciates Gowda’s decision to focus more on the Northeast region. Hailing from the Manipur cadre, it perhaps comes as no surprise as the author’s understanding of the region and its problems are unparalleled. The same sense of objectivity is once again reflected when Singh talks about his time with Prime Minister Gujral. Calling him a kind-hearted democrat, it is to Singh’s credit that he was able to bring to the fore the personal touch that Gujral brought to the PMO with his emphasis on foreign policy.

However, it is the six years that Singh spent with Prime Minister Vajpayee that makes for the soul of this book. Calling the Vajpayee period from March 1998 to May 2004 as a "Golden Era" for infrastructure development in the history of India, Singh has charted out the major reforms undertaken during this period. He also terms this period as an “era of quick decision-making”. 

Perhaps what is more surprising is his observation that under Vajpayee, the PMO functioned in a fair and apolitical manner. This is in stark contrast to the general view that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) exerted a tremendous influence on the political decisions that were taken during that time.

What is interesting is that even when concentrating on the positives, Singh has not shied away from criticizing the political decisions and policies of the governments he worked with and the personalities that he so admired. He says in no uncertain terms that it was a serious lapse that no one was punished for the serious intelligence of the lapse in providing information on the Kargil war. Without naming anyone, he has called out the corruption in various government departments, especially on the unscrupulous role of private consultants and the nexus they had formed with bureaucrats to misappropriate government funds.

Singh’s time with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the shortest before he was posted as Chief Secretary of Manipur. But he has still managed to bring to fore the persona of a man, who despite being in power for ten years remains an enigma to many. His portrayal of Manmohan Singh being a man of details makes one wonder if he has always been an academician at heart and politics was never his comfort zone.

With Four Prime Ministers is a reminder that in the end rules should trump power and it is the responsibility of the bureaucracy to step in where elected representatives fail to act.

(The writer is Research Associate, India Policy Foundation. The views expressed are personal)

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