1. Corridors of Power: Strong PM, weak PMO

Corridors of Power: Strong PM, weak PMO

There is growing concern over the lack of clarity within the government, and outside, over the implementation of mega-schemes announced by PM Narendra Modi. The PMO appears to be failing to provide a clear direction.

By: | Updated: November 25, 2015 8:03 AM
Narendra Modi

A senior government functionary shared an interesting conversation the other day, which, to a large extent, explains the functioning style of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Reuters)

A senior government functionary shared an interesting conversation the other day, which, to a large extent, explains the functioning style of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

At a meeting of top government managers, one of the ministers—considering there are a number of young ministers, this is bound to happen—started narrating how a number of new schemes had been launched by the NDA government. However, the eulogy got cut short quickly. The Prime Minister intervened and told him, and others present, point blank: “Koi naya kaam nahin hota, sirf naam naya hota hai” (There is no new scheme or work, it is only the name that is new). The underlying message was that the government needs to focus on implementing the ongoing schemes better and, in the process, if there is a need to restructure and remodel any scheme or system, the government should do it, but what matters the most is how you ensure that the work is done successfully.

Look at the mega-schemes launched by the Prime Minister against this backdrop—Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana and direct benefit transfer in LPG and other areas, Digital India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Make-in-India, Smart Cities—and you will realise they are a repackaging of old schemes into more attractive and workable models. Adopting the UPA’s projected game-changer Aadhaar as the base model for government subsidies, entitlements and service delivery is probably one of the strongest statements of this objective and way of working.

Another pillar of PM Modi’s working style, officials say, is fixing the minutest details of a project before accepting or launching it. So, when the idea of a port-led development was thrown at him, he first asked for a complete plan on how it can be done. The proposal is to develop the areas around the ports on the western and southern coasts into business hubs—this is being seen as a better plan than just developing the ports and an exercise to prepare a blueprint for this is now on.

Clearly, when it comes to handling big ideas and schemes at the level of the Prime Minister, there seems to be no confusion, uncertainty or unnecessary delay, like in the previous government. The big question though, within the government circles, and also outside, is whether this is enough to ensure good results, going ahead?

Once the government announces a scheme, it is the job of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to handle it and draw concrete strategies to implement it effectively through effective coordination. This, however, is emerging as a major issue with the NDA government.

Talk to the institutional heads or senior government officials in different ministries and departments, or even the industry leaders, and they will tell you that there is an utter lack of clarity on the implementation of the mega-schemes, or for that matter any policy move that is announced by the government. Right or wrong, this perception is spreading fast. Whatever be the reason—one argument is that when you have a strong Prime Minister like Narendra Modi, others in the government always look to him for guidance everywhere rather than being proactive themselves—this concern needs to be addressed quickly.

It is a fact that the current PMO lacks the dexterity of people like Brajesh Mishra—the principal secretary (and also national security adviser) to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee—or the meticulous planning and execution style of Pulok Chatterji, who was the mainstay of the PMO’s implementation machinery during the UPA-I, working as a joint secretary, and had to be brought back again as principal secretary to resurrect the situation for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the UPA-II period by tackling policy paralysis.

In the current PMO dispensation, the economic policy part—which is the most important one in today’s context—is being handled by former Trai chairman Nripendra Misra as principal secretary, who is considered to be an upright official who understands the functioning of the government quite well due to his vast experience of working at various levels of administration. PK Mishra, a confidant of PM Modi, is his additional principal secretary, who is looking after all the appointments, and is known to be a tough official to deal with. While in their own areas, these two may be performing their duties as per direction currently, there is a thinking that a better system would have been to keep one strong official at the helm of affairs, who could guide the implementation of the government’s economic policies and schemes efficiently by combining the two works.

With Ajit Doval as the national security adviser handling the security affairs quite well, PM Modi needs to create a strong administrative machinery to support and implement his ideas and schemes for attaining high growth and inclusive development.

How will Digital India work if only 3,384 gram panchayats were connected to the broadband network as of November 2 as against the plan of connecting 2.5 lakh gram panchayats? Will Swachh Bharat have any meaning if 60% Indians continue to be without their own toilets? Make-in-India will remain on paper to a large extent unless the ease of doing business improves in a big way. Similarly, Jan-Dhan Yojana has made a good start, but the 19.27 crore bank accounts under the scheme will be just a show-piece if Aadhaar-based DBT is not extended to all social sector spending by the government so that adequate money comes into these accounts.

In the absence of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, it would be difficult to push through any big reform legislation in Parliament—this is a reality which the NDA government will have to live with for its rest of the tenure unless PM Modi succeeds in convincing non-NDA parties somehow that these legislations will help the state governments also across the board. Against this backdrop, it is the results of the mega-schemes launched by him that will be the yardstick to measure his performance as Prime Minister and also that of the NDA government.

Poor floor management has led to a deadlock in Parliament—it will be suicidal to allow weak and nonchalant implementation of flagship schemes ruin growth prospects. If this happens, the new names (schemes) will also end up yielding old results. PM Modi will do well by finding an answer to this fast, while grappling with the Opposition onslaught in Parliament in the Winter Session beginning tomorrow, on ‘intolerance’. If getting the goods and services tax (GST) and real estate Bills passed is important, this is of no less significance.


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