New Delhi: In a first, the new Modi government has given a cabinet rank to three senior civil servants — National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Principal Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Nripendra Misra and Additional Principal Secretary P.K. Mishra.
On the face of it, the move was required to balance the hierarchical structure after former foreign secretary S. Jaishankar was given a cabinet berth when he was made the external affairs minister.
A 1974-batch officer, Jaishankar is junior to all three — Doval is a 1968-batch retired IPS officer, and both Misra and Mishra are retired IAS officers from the 1967 and 1972 batches, respectively.
Before getting a cabinet rank, their position was equivalent to a minister of state.
“The government did not want a situation where Doval or Misra have to report to a junior,” said a senior serving civil servant on condition of anonymity.
However, more than balancing the hierarchy, retired and serving civil servants told ThePrint that the move has sent a strong message to the bureaucracy about the power structure in the new government.
“Power was centralised in the PMO even during (PM Narendra) Modi’s first term but now in the second term it has become all the more powerful and will continue to be so,” said former home secretary G.K. Pillai.
‘They’re all equal now’
Another serving senior civil servant who didn’t wish to be named said, “In a way, the move also means dilution of an elected cabinet minister’s authority to some extent. An elected cabinet minister can’t call these three bureaucrats for meeting like earlier. Technically, they are all equal now.”
Not much will change as far as work is concerned.
“Getting a cabinet rank entitles the three bureaucrats to attend all cabinet meetings, which Doval as national security advisor and Misra as principal secretary to PM were anyway attending earlier. It just formalises the earlier informal arrangement,” Pillai said.
‘Cabinet rank in PMO is different’
It’s not the first time, though, that a non-elected member has been given a cabinet berth.
For instance, the Modi government gave the post of vice-chairman of think-tank Niti Aayog a cabinet minister rank. Both Rajiv Kumar, the incumbent Niti Aayog chief, and his predecessor Arvind Panagariya enjoyed the same. Panagariya, though, was not accorded the rank initially.
Similarly, as head of Unique Identification Authority of India, Nandan Nilekani was given the rank of a cabinet minister under the Manmohan Singh government. The deputy chairman of the erstwhile Planning Commission was also a cabinet rank post. In the two UPA terms, Montek Singh Ahluwalia held the post with a cabinet rank.
“But bureaucrats in the PMO being given a cabinet rank is a different matter,” said the first serving civil servant.
Upgraded ‘Gujarat model’
Several IAS officers ThePrint spoke to said Prime Minister Narendra Modi has replicated his ‘Gujarat model’ in the PMO by empowering his civil servants.
When Modi was the Gujarat chief minister, retired civil servants such as K. Kailashnathan called the shots in the CMO. Kailashnathan was made the chief principal secretary to the Gujarat CM after retirement.
“The PMO has overriding and supervisory control over all policy proposals, schemes and programmes of different ministries. Everything has been put under a tight leash with the message that anybody trying to outsmart will be dealt with sternly,” said a retired secretary who didn’t want to be identified.
“It is an indication of the trust of PM in these officers as also his reiteration of his trust in bureaucracy,” said retired cabinet secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar.
Perform or perish
Civil servants also say that having a strong PMO helps in pushing through tough decisions.
“There were instances in Modi’s first term too, (like) when the government decided to demonetise high value currency notes. In its second term also, the government has got cracking by compulsorily retiring 12 senior Income Tax department officials on charges of corruption and professional misconduct,” said the retired secretary.
The message is loud and clear — perform or perish, added a serving joint secretary in the government.