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A Principal Decline In South Block


In the last decade, the office of the principal secretary to the prime minister has emerged as the most powerful centre in government decision-making. Barring exceptions like S K Mishra and N N Vora, who had very short stints as principal secretary to Chandra Shekhar and Inder Kumar Gujral respectively, all other incumbents of this office have wielded tremendous influence, particularly in economic policy-making. B G Deshmukh, A N Varma and even T R Satish Chandran played an active role in influencing all key government decisions during their tenure.

Will Brajesh Mishra, the newly appointed principal secretary to the prime minister wield similar clout? Not really, if one goes by recent developments in the prime ministers office.

Like most of his predecessors, the present incumbent is also a retired bureaucrat. But more importantly, he is an active member of the Bharatiya Janata Party as well. On paper, this should have given him more power. But the simultaneous appointment of BJP heavyweight Pramod Mahajan as political advisor to the prime minister has effectively taken away much of the powers that would otherwise have been vested in Mishra. Even Sheila Dixit and Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi as ministers of state in the Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao governments made a difference to the powers of Deshmukh and Varma. And Mahajan is far more important in the BJP hierarchy than Dixit and Chaturvedi were in the Congress at the time.

The fact that Mishra retired from service more than a decade ago will also weigh against him. He will not have the advantage of having worked closely with most of the secretaries or additional secretaries now functioning in different ministries. This was an advantage that Deshmukh and Varma used to the hilt. Their appointment as principal secretary came as an extension of their service as IAS officers. In this sense, Mishra will have the same disadvantage as T R Satish Chandran. He too joined the prime ministers office after serving out a long post-retirement period.

Then again, both Varma and Deshmukh spent a better part of their IAS careers in economic ministries. So it was but natural for them to take a keen interest in economic policy making. But Mishras interests are defence and foreign affairs. So he will be mostly busy with Indias claim for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, insurgent activities in Kashmir or Indias relations with the US. Economic policy-making has never been his forte. To that extent, the team in North Block under finance minister Yashwant Sinha is likely to get a free hand. There will be no B G Deshmukh, A N Varma or even a T R Satish Chandran to advise the finance ministry mandarins on how to tackle the current economic crisis and point out where and how they can go wrong.

No wonder Mishra has little do with the pre-budget exercise that has been undertaken in the finance ministry. Nor does he want to have a say in such issues. The finance minister today is a worried man. On Saturday, he left for the US along with his key officials in the finance ministry and the RBI Governor, Dr Bimal Jalan, with the objective of restoring the confidence of the international investing community in India. Mishra is not particularly involved in this exercise either.

Would B G Deshmukh or A N Varma have stayed aloof in similar circumstances? That will be the difference between Mishra and most of his predecessors.

Economic policy-making has never been Mishras forte. To that extent, Yashwant Sinha is likely to get a free hand.

First Published: Mon, April 13 1998. 00:00 IST