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PMs come and go but these PMO officials have prospered — under Vajpayee, Manmohan & Modi

A number of civil servants in Modi govt have held significant positions either under PM Vajpayee or during the Congress govt of Manmohan Singh.

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New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government Tuesday extended the term of Gujarat cadre IAS officer Rajeev Topno who has served as the PM’s private secretary since the BJP took power in 2014. For Topno, however, this is his third stint in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) — he had earlier served as a director in the PMO under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Last month, the BJP brought former IAS officer Ashwini Vaishnaw to Parliament. Vaishnaw, who was elected unopposed to Rajya Sabha from Odisha, had served as the private secretary to former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Modi had personally intervened to get the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) to back Vaishnaw’s candidature.

Vaishnaw and Topno are among a growing breed of bureaucrats at the Centre who have held influential posts under prime ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. These civil servants who served the two prime ministers closely continue to hold plum posts under the Modi government, bringing to the fore how the prime minister has pursued a policy of continuity when it comes to picking up bureaucrats — serving and retired — for key posts in the government.

A few, like Topno, have even survived the ideological upheaval in the government, having served in the Manmohan Singh PMO in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

The Vajpayee-era bureaucrats

Around five officials who were part of the Vajpayee PMO from 1999 are now back in the corridors of power in New Delhi under the current BJP government. Prominent among them is N.K. Singh, the chairman of the 15th Finance Commission. Singh, a retired IAS officer, was the officer on special duty for economic affairs in the Vajpayee dispensation. He has now formally joined the BJP.

The Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, was once the private secretary to Vajpayee between 1999 and 2004. Another diplomat from the Vajpayee era, P.S. Raghavan, now heads the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), which was reconstituted in July 2018. The NSAB’s mandate is to advise the PM on key national security and strategic matters. Raghavan, the former Indian ambassador to Russia, had served as a joint secretary in the Vajpayee PMO.

The current director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Shakti Sinha, is a retired IAS officer who had served as a private secretary and then joint secretary in the Vajpayee PMO between 1996 and 1999. Sinha is now closely involved in a key project of the Modi government — to set up a museum for all prime ministers in the Teen Murti Bhavan complex.

Ashok Tandon, a former journalist with PTI London, was Vajpayee’s media advisor. He is now a member of the Prasar Bharti board.

Also read: New anxiety among IAS officers in Delhi as Modi govt picks only 7 for 33 top posts

Civil servants who made the transition from Singh tenure

It’s not only the Vajpayee PMO that has representation in the Modi bureaucratic coterie. Apart from Topno, some of the trusted aides of former PM Manmohan Singh have been given important portfolios in the two Modi governments.

The most prominent among them is B.V.R. Subrahmanyam, who served in the Singh PMO in both Congress terms — in 2004 and 2009. He was first a private secretary before serving as a joint secretary.

Subrahmanyam was handpicked by Modi in 2014 to be the government’s main point-person in the sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir. He was appointed the state’s chief secretary in June 2018.

West Bengal-cadre IAS officer Sanjay Mitra has not only served under PM Singh but also with an administration inimical to the Modi government. A joint secretary in the Singh PMO, Mitra then served as the chief secretary in the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool government in West Bengal. He returned to Delhi in 2017, first as highways secretary and now serves as the defence secretary.

Another joint secretary in Singh PMO, IFS officer Jawed Ashraf, is presently the Indian ambassador to Singapore. Ashraf had managed to impress Modi too and continued to work in the PMO after 2014. He not only gave advice on foreign policy-related matters to Modi but was also his main speech-writer.

Ashraf, however, is not alone. Almost all the IFS officers posted in PMO during Singh’s tenure as PM have landed plum assignments after Modi took charge in 2014.

Pankaj Saran, who was a joint secretary in Singh’s PMO and had been India’s ambassador to Russia, is now the Deputy National Security Adviser. Vikram Misri, who served as Singh’s private secretary, is now India’s ambassador to China.

‘A healthy trend’

NMML director Sinha, among the bureaucrats who have straddled regimes, says its a healthy trend.

“PM Modi had made it very clear in the beginning itself that he is not going to identify officers with any political dispensation,” he said. “In fact, the PM did not change any officer in PMO when he took charge in 2014. He treated the officers as professionals doing their job.”

Another official from the Vajpayee PMO said that the Modi government has been making a distinction between its bureaucratic and political appointments.

“There is a distinction that the Modi government makes between bureaucrats and political appointments such as governors,” the official said. “Barring one, no governor from the UPA era were retained after their term got over.”

The report has been updated to reflect the correct designation of Pankaj Saran.

Also read: Modi govt could soon reduce India’s 60-plus civil services to just 3 or 4


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  1. This is how it should be. The people who stand beneath the umbrella term “ trusted bureaucrats “ are not aligned with the ethos of a professional civil service.

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