New Delhi: Weeks after it won the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to retain power, the Narendra Modi government took an unprecedented decision to accord cabinet rank to three top officials close to the PM — then-principal secretary Nripendra Misra, additional principal secretary P.K. Mishra, and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
The government also created a new position in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) — that of the principal advisor to the PM — to accommodate one of Modi’s most trusted IAS officers, P.K. Sinha, who had already got three extensions to become the longest-serving cabinet secretary, but wasn’t given cabinet rank.
Cut to 2021. Two of these four officers have quit the PMO citing personal reasons — Misra in August 2019 and Sinha earlier this month.
While Doval’s power and influence over national security remains intact, it is P.K. Mishra, now the principal secretary to the PM, who has emerged as the main power centre in the PMO across domains. His influence is also visible in the way officers from his home cadre — Gujarat — and his home state — Odisha — occupy many top positions in the government.
Mishra, who has been principal secretary to PM Modi for almost all of his government’s second term barring the first couple of months, has overseen several reshuffles, exits and changes in the power structure within the PMO.
ThePrint reached the PMO spokesperson for a comment through calls and a WhatsApp message, and to P.K. Mishra’s office through calls and an email, but there was no response from either until the time of publishing this report.
Gujarat and Odisha cadre officers in key positions
Gujarat cadre officers have held several key positions at the Centre since 2014, as reported by ThePrint last year, but the trend has only strengthened in the Modi government’s second term. In bureaucratic circles, this is seen as a consolidation of power by Mishra, a Gujarat cadre officer, since the exit of Nripendra Misra, who was from the UP cadre.
Consider some of these examples: Guruprasad Mohapatra, Secretary, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT); Defence Production Secretary Raj Kumar; Environment Secretary R.P. Gupta; Chemicals and Fertilisers Secretary S. Aparna; B.B. Swain, Special Secretary, Commerce; School Education Secretary Anita Karwal; and Srinivas Katikithala, Establishment Officer in the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), are all secretary level officers of the Gujarat cadre in key positions in the Government of India.
It’s not a trend limited to secretaries — Gujarat cadre officers also fill many other key posts like officers on special duty; private secretary to the PM and director in the PMO; director-level officers in the Ministry of Home Affairs and Department of Economic Affairs (DEA); and private secretaries in top ministries like the external affairs.
However, government insiders told ThePrint that the surest sign of P.K. Mishra’s clout is the multitude of officers from Odisha who are now occupying important positions.
Even among the secretary-level Gujarat cadre officers, at least two belong to Odisha — Mohapatra and Swain. Further, the textile secretary, corporate affairs secretary, and secretary to the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management are all Odisha cadre officers appointed in the last year and a half.
Several important additional and joint secretary positions like those in the ministries of legal affairs, health, defence, civil aviation, food and public distribution, etc. are also occupied by Odisha cadre officers, as is the chair of the Central Board of Secondary Education.
“There is no doubt about who is the most powerful bureaucrat in the country today… (P.K. Mishra’s) position has continued to consolidate over the years, but some of the recent changes that have taken place in the bureaucracy in terms of appointments, transfers etc. have made that amply clear,” said a senior official in the central government who did not wish to be identified.
“In Modi’s first term as well, the PMO was highly centralised, but there were at least two power centres within the PMO — Nripendra Misra and P.K. Mishra,” said the official. “Between the two, the lines were very well demarcated, with Nripendra Misra looking after all of policy, and P.K. Mishra handling appointments.”
The official added: “Even though Nripendra Misra was the more senior official, both in terms of designation and in terms of what he did, he was more like Brajesh Mishra was for Vajpayee. Appointments, one of the most crucial instruments of power in the government, rested exclusively with P.K. Mishra. Both of them had a direct line to the PM.”
However, with Misra’s exit from the PMO, the division of work somewhat blurred, with principal advisor Sinha (who belonged to the same cadre as Nripendra Misra, UP) having to report to P.K. Mishra, and controlling only those areas that were explicitly not allocated to Mishra.
A second official pointed out: “With Nripendra Misra out of the PMO, there was just P.K. Mishra who had a line to the PM. P.K. Sinha didn’t quite take up that space. Over the last one year, what you see is massive consolidation of power around P.K. Mishra.”
Changes in the PMO
One more surprise, high-profile exit from the government has been that of A.K. Sharma, another close aide of PM Modi since his days as Gujarat CM. Sharma had been part of the PMO since 2014, but quit in January this year.
“A.K. Sharma is one of the closest officers to the PM,” one of the two officials the second official quoted above said.
“He was first moved out of the PMO and made MSME secretary, which is not a high-profile post as such. But that could still be seen in the context of the pandemic and that the ministry is headed by Nitin Gadkari. But he was also very close to Nripendra Misra, so his exit can also be seen in that context,” the official added.
When Sharma was moved out from the position of additional secretary in the PMO, his fellow additional secretary, Tarun Bajaj was as well, and made secretary, economic affairs. Bajaj has now been given the additional charge of the revenue department.
In June 2020, the government also appointed two members of the PMO, senior IAS officers Rajiv Topno and Brajendra Navnit, to the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), respectively.
“These have been some very significant changes in the PMO in the last one year… Almost the entire core of the PMO has been changed over the last few months,” an official who was on central deputation until last year said.
‘Not unusual, a matter of trust’
Shakti Sinha, who served as a joint secretary in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s PMO, told ThePrint that it’s not unusual for a principal secretary to the PM to wield great influence on appointments. In fact, said Sinha, now a distinguished fellow at the India Foundation and the honorary director of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies, MS University, Vadodara, it’s part of a historical governance trend.
“This is part of a historical trend which started during Lal Bahadur Shastri’s time, where power shifted from the cabinet secretary’s office to the principal secretary in the PMO. Since then, even when India has had ‘weak’ PMs, the PMO has continued to be important,” the former IAS officer said.
“With appointments etc., a limited degree of bias is alright, because it is also a function of trust. The one thing that is different about this PMO is that it takes long to make appointments because of several checks and consultations,” he added.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)