The rise of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) since the assumption of office by its new principal secretary has been undisputed. You ask anyone in industry or in the civil service, the answer is the same. The PMO under Pulok Chaterji is now taking things under its control and the most visible area of change has been the infrastructure sector. Decisions are being taken and action plans finalised, though there may be doubts about their effectiveness.
But the issue that still remains in doubt is whether the rise of the PMO has also meant the rise of the prime minister. Such doubts and indeed questions have begun bothering the top echelons of the civil service because while the PMO has taken charge on several economic administrative issues, the prime minister has been involved in avoidable situations exposing him to attack from various quarters. Three recent instances may have given rise to such doubts.
One, a decision taken with the express approval of the prime minister has been questioned by an officiating head of a public sector undertaking, who also happens to be a civil servant. This is about the prime minister’s directive that the state-controlled Coal India Limited should import coal and meet the shortfall in coal supplies to power projects under its fuel supply agreement.
Now, this decision has been questioned by the officiating chief executive of Coal India on the apparently justifiable ground that the company’s core competence was not in imports of coal but mining it, provided, of course, there were no policy-related obstructions. Remember that such policy hurdles have indeed thwarted new mining projects, particularly because of environment-related concerns.
The fact is that though the overall action plan on making more coal available to new power projects was prepared by a committee of secretaries, the government’s attempt to give it greater sanctity by saying it was approved by the prime minister appears to have backfired with the Coal India head questioning the decision’s logic. Meanwhile, it is the prime minister who has taken the flak for initiating what may appear to be a controversial move.
Two, the recent clamour of protests from a group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) against the nuclear power project at Koodankulam provoked a retaliatory statement from the prime minister. It questioned the motive of the NGOs making the noise and also referred to their funding source. One may quarrel over why the prime minister had to issue such a statement, but what this highlighted is a new aspect of the way the government has been functioning of late.
The NGOs, which have got a big fillip under the United Progressive Alliance regime, came under attack perhaps for the first time since 2004 and naturally came out with a strong response challenging the prime minister’s comment. Worse, even his Cabinet colleague Jairam Ramesh issued a public statement that challenged the statement from his prime minister. So, the spectacle gets even more embarrassing. The prime minister is now engaged in an unseemly battle of words not only with the NGOs but also with his own minister.
Three, Railways Minister Dinesh Trivedi makes a public statement that the prime minister has not paid heed to his request for more funds to modernise the country’s largest passenger and goods transportation network. Trivedi belongs to the Trinamool Congress and took charge of the Indian Railways after Mamata Banerjee left the ministry to head the West Bengal government after the elections in that state in May 2011.
Railway passenger fares have seen little change for the past eight years and freight rates are already at a level that Indian Railways has been losing its goods transportation business to roads. Indian Railways needs resources to invest in creating more capacity, but it can raise them only if it agrees to raise passenger fares. Instead of discarding such populism, Trivedi expects the prime minister or the finance ministry to bail him out with more funds from a government that is already short of resources.
Coal India’s outburst, Ramesh’s rebuttal on the role of NGOs and now Trivedi’s statement on the funding for Indian Railways have one common factor. The prime minister has ended up on the receiving end of all these incidents. This is ironic at a time when the PMO is gaining strength, profile and clout. It is possible that these three incidents do not indicate a trend yet. But they are certainly odd and many civil servants may be wondering whether there is something more to these developments.