How distinct or distant can the prime minister be from the prime minister's office? In an ideal world, the prime minister's office, or the PMO, is an extension of the prime minister, or the PM. The two should be almost indistinguishable as they supplement each other in achieving the objectives and purposes the PM sets out for the government. The PM is the chief conductor of an orchestra, and the PMO should consist of various players of different instruments in that team.
Indeed, the relationship between the PM and the PMO is much deeper. The success or failure of the PM largely depends on the effectiveness and efficiency with which the PMO manages to get his or her ideas and policies implemented. This is not to say that the PM's own ability as a leader is irrelevant. But there is no denying that a strong, focused and efficient PMO can make a big difference. It certainly empowers the PM and helps him achieve his goals with minimum fuss. Take the PMO away and the PM would feel helpless and ineffective, unless he relies on the Cabinet secretariat or builds some other institution to implement his agenda.
Manmohan Singh, who will next month complete his 10-year-long tenure as prime minister, ran a PMO that many believe did not entirely belong to him. Two recently published books - one by his former media advisor Sanjaya Baru and the other by former Coal Secretary P C Parakh - have shed some light on the kind of PMO Dr Singh ran. Much of what these books reveal in their pages validate the earlier views on the lack of firmness Dr Singh showed in dealing with the PMO or even recruiting its key senior staff.
For instance, Dr Singh did not get a free hand in recruiting the most crucial man in the PMO - the principal secretary to the prime minister. His first choice in 2004 was veteran bureaucrat N N Vohra (at present governor of Jammu and Kashmir), but that proposal was turned down by the Congress leadership. The man who finally got the nod of approval, T K A Nair, was also Dr Singh's choice but was clearly seen to be much less effective than almost all his predecessors in that job. Several other senior officials in Dr Singh's PMO also did not owe their allegiance to the PM and instead were beholden to the Congress leadership or to the Gandhi family. There are even serious doubts as to whether the two other media advisors Dr Singh had got after the departure of Dr Baru were chosen by the prime minister.
Mr Parakh's account of the PMO that he saw as coal secretary (Dr Singh at that time was also in charge of the coal ministry) shows how the PM and the PMO were virtually powerless in bringing to book a minister keen on browbeating civil servants into flouting the rule book. A PM with strong support from his PMO would have nipped such ministerial misdemeanours in the bud.
Contrast this with the way Dr Singh's political guru, P V Narasimha Rao, ran his PMO in the early 1990s. With Amar Nath Verma, the formidable Indian Administrative Service officer, as his principal secretary, Narasimha Rao ran his PMO with complete independence and made it the key driver of policies for the government. It is perhaps unfair to compare Narasimha Rao with Dr Singh. The former was an astute politician, who ran both the Congress party and the government without brooking any interference from any quarters, while the latter's political skills are relatively limited and he is acutely conscious of how he owes his job to the Congress president. But there is little doubt that the PMO under Narasimha Rao was in complete harmony with him as the PM and that did go a long way towards furthering his government's policy agenda.
Even the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government of the National Democratic Alliance from 1998 to 2004 had a powerful PMO. Mr Vajpayee led an alliance government and he too would come under immense pressure from leaders and ministers belonging to the alliance partners. The key difference was that he kept a tight control over his government through his PMO, which was led ably by his principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra. Imagine the Vajpayee government's PMO without Brajesh Mishra and you will realise what difference that would have made to the economic or political goals that Mr Vajpayee succeeded in realising for his government.
If history were to judge the role played by Amar Nath Verma, Brajesh Mishra and T K A Nair as principal secretaries to their three respective prime ministers, the verdict would be pretty obvious. If Narasimha Rao and Mr Vajpayee succeeded in running the government with a firm hand, it was largely because of the help they received from their principal secretaries in the PMO and, of course, the manner in which they empowered their PMO. In sharp contrast, Dr Singh ran a weak PMO with a principal secretary who would be not a patch on either Verma or Mishra. This was made worse by some officers who owed their entire allegiance not to the prime minister but to the Congress president.
There is an obvious lesson from all this for the new prime minister who would move into South Block next month. It will be important for him to put in place a strong, effective and powerful PMO. Even more important will be the need to select a principal secretary for the PMO who can work in close coordination with the prime minister and make the government effective and efficient.