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Mainstream, VOL LV No 18, New Delhi, April 22, 2017

The Prime Minister’s Office: Origin and Evolution

Monday 24 April 2017, by Ashok Parthasarathi


Jawaharlal Nehru, our first Prime Minister, had only his Special Assistant, M.O. Mathai, to assist him in his work. Mathai had the rank and salary of a Joint Secretary to the Government of India. However, Nehru was, for much of his seventeen years (1947-1964) as the PM, also the Minister of External Affairs. So, he drew on the Ministry’s four Secretaries to assist him not only on foreign affairs but also on several domestic matters. What is more, despite his towering personality, he had, as his Cabinet colleagues, people who were major political figures in their own right, for example, C.D. Deshmukh as the Finance Minister, Govind Ballabh Pant as the Home Minister, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as the Education Minister, Krishna Menon both as the Defence Minister and Minister without Portfolio dealing with Foreign Affairs. Moreover, when he died in 1964, the size of the Government of India and its responsibilities were much smaller than what they became even by the early seventies.

Panditji’s successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was first to have a Secretary to the PM in the form of the senior ICS officer, L.K. Jha. However, there was only one Joint Secretary and two Deputy Secretaries to assist Jha. What is more, this small group of officers was not called even the Prime Minister’s Office, let alone Secretariat as we knew it later, under Indira Gandhi.

It was only in the Government of Indira Gandhi that the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, as we know it today, was born. The architect of such a Secretariat was P.N. Haksar whom Indiraji inducted as the Secretary to the PM in March 1967. When she became the Prime Minister in January 1966, initially she allowed L.K. Jha to continue as the Secretary to the PM. However, she found Jha as also the Information Adviser, B.G. Verghese, a noted Right-wing journalist who had been the editor of the Right-wing newspaper, The Hindustan Times, highly pro-USA, and more generally pro-World Bank and IMF.

However, with Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai as the Finance Minister, and the conservative “old guard” Congress party leaders of the likes of Kamaraj, Nijalingappa, Sanjiva Reddy and Atulya Ghosh and our massive dependence on imports of wheat and rice from the USA under that country’s Public Law 480 in the famous “ship-to-mouth” programme, Indiraji and Haksar had to tread very carefully on all policy matters, particularly economic ones.

The old guard did everything possible to constrict and constrain her. Moreover, Ashoka Mehta as the Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, and the ultra-Right-winger S. Bhoothalingam as the Finance Secretary, made the still greenhorn Indiraji to follow the dictats of the World Bank and IMF. The most serious action they took was to force her to devalue the rupee by a whopping 57 per cent in December 1966, allegedly to deal with a shortage of foreign exchange. There was a furore in Parliament at this step.

The disastrous devaluation led Indiraji to pack off Jha in March 1967 as the Ambassador to the USA and induct P.N. Haksar, a senior Foreign Service Officer with known Left-wing views, as her Secretary. It was Haksar who first coined and implemented the term “Prime Minister’s Secretariat”.

Then, in March 1969, the General Body of the Congress party called a meeting of the All India Congress Committee. It met at Bangalore. The aim of the old guard was to get the AICC to endorse their conservative, indeed reactionary, policies in all areas. On Haksar’s advice Indiraji did not attend the AICC meeting. Instead she sent to the AICC a Note entitled “Some Stray Thoughts” (drafed by Haksar) laying out a radical Left-of-Centre policy on a whole gamut of issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy, Predictably, the old guard rejected that Note. Somewhat in response to such rejection, Indiraji dropped Desai from her Cabinet, and took the Finance Ministry directly under herself. She then took a major radical step of nationalising all private sector banks.

Meanwhile, in mid-1969, the election of a new President of India came up. The old guard put up one of their members, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, as “their” candidate for that crucial top job of the country. Mrs Gandhi retaliated by getting the highly respected labour leader, V.V. Giri, as “her” candidate and called on all Congressmen and women, both at the Centre and in the States, “to vote as per their conscience” (another piece of Haksar’s advice). A battle royal took place extending over many months. Finally, Giri was elected by a huge margin.

With that victory in her hands, Indiraji expelled the entire old guard from the Congress party and thereby consolidated her position as the leader of the Congress party and govenment. It was also a great victory for Haksar and the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

It was against such a backdrop that she inducted me into the Prime Minister’s Secretariat as the Special Assistant for S&T to the PM with the rank of a Joint Secretary to the Government of India. I was just 30 years old. I went into that position after getting two Master’s degrees. The first was in the advanced field of Radio Astronomy at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory of the University of Cambridge in the UK. The Director of the Observatory and my Superviser was Professor Martin Ryle, one of the inventors of Radar during World War II. Ryle got the Nobel Prize in 1982. My second Master’s degree was from the MIT in the USA.

I actually joined the Prime Minister’s Secretariat on June 15, 1970. I could not meet either Inidraji or Haksar on that day as they were both at the General Conference of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). So I actually met both at them the next day. There had never been a full-time S&T Adviser to any Prime Minister in our country, working out of that Secretariat on a 24x7 basis before. So, I had to operate in uncharted waters. I met Haksar on June 16 and asked him what my brief was. Haksar said: “Ashok, first of all, remember always that the Prime Minister’s Secretariat does not exist; only the Prime Minister exists.” Later that day, Haksar issued the following internal order in the PMS:

”Ashok Parthasarathi has joined the Prime Minister’s Secretariat yesterday as Special Assistant for Science and Technology. He will normally put up files and papers directly to PM. On important matters he will put up papers to PM through me.”

When I asked Haksar what were “important papers”, he said: “You have to decide that in each case.”

At that time the PMS was composed of two IAS Joint Secretaries, B.N. Tandon and G. Ramachandran, an Information Adviser to the PM, the late Sharada Prasad, who had the rank of a Joint Secretary, two Deputy Secretaries and one Under Secretary, M.M. Malhoutra.

I met the PM also on June 16, 1970. She was not just warm and but affectionate. She said: “Ashok, I want you to be my eyes and ears on all aspects of S&T worldwide. I also want you to be my link with the S&T community both at home and abroad.”

As I went back to my room, I was both overwhelmed and honoured by what Indiraji expected of me. I settled down in the next two months.

Many years later, after Indiraji had declared an Internal Emergency in June 1975, the Emergency had run its course, and Mrs Gandhi lost the general elections of 1977, the Janata Party had come to power and its Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, had been sworn in on March 20 that year, one of the first things he did was to change the name of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat to the Prime Minister’s Office. That is because all the leaders of the Opposition-to-Congress parties who had been in prison together for some 20 months wanted the Prime Minister’ Secretariat—which they viewed as the central power-house of the Emergency—to be abolished.

Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone to the other extreme and is reported to have a gargantuan “Super Secretariat” of around 800 persons structured in terms of formal, informal and many shadowy groups.

The author is a former S&T Adviser to late PM Indira Gandhi and Secretary to the Government of India in several major S&T Departments of the Union Government.

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