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The advent of the PMO

Shastri called the new power centre the ‘Prime Minister’s Secretariat’. It was Morarji Desai who changed the name

Written by Inder Malhotra |
August 20, 2012 12:15:28 am

Shastri called the new power centre the ‘Prime Minister’s Secretariat’. It was Morarji Desai who changed the name

OVER a month after becoming prime minister,and barely a few days after recovering from illness,Lal Bahadur Shastri created yet another sensation. He set up an altogether new institution in the governmental system that almost immediately,and perhaps inevitably,became a new power centre. He called it the “Prime Minister’s Secretariat”,which endures to this day though it is now called the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). It was Morarji Desai who changed the name in 1977 almost entirely out of spite for his predecessor,Indira Gandhi.

Shastri’s PMS was headed by L.K. Jha,an outstanding and rather domineering civil servant belonging to the British-time “steel frame”,the ICS,sometimes derided as “neither Indian,nor Civil nor Service”. However,few doubted the ability and industriousness of a great many members of this elite tribe. In the commerce ministry in the 1950s,Jha had worked with Shastri and had obviously impressed the boss before moving on to the ministry of finance as economic affairs secretary.

Initially,Shastri wanted to have two secretaries in the PMS — Jha for economic affairs,and L.P. Singh,an equally competent and sophisticated officer on the cusp of being appointed home secretary,for administrative matters. But this was not to be. Jha just did not countenance the idea of someone of equal rank sharing the stewardship of the PMS with him. Moreover,Home Minister G.L. Nanda was not willing to “spare” Singh.

All through his 17 years as the first PM of independent India,Jawaharlal Nehru had never needed a secretariat of his own. He had a very small personal staff,headed by an officer of joint secretary rank who was called principal private secretary. Even when Nehru went abroad,always on a commercial flight,his retinue included only one personal assistant,apart from a single security officer. In the external affairs ministry that he ran all through his reign,he did have a secretary-general,three secretaries and a host of others to advise him. He would consult them,of course,but often the roles were reversed.

Working until after midnight at home,he would see incoming telegrams,take a decision on what needed to be done about them,and marked the papers to the secretary concerned,directing them as to what action to take as suggested by him. Sometimes,his instructions would be: “This letter (usually to a foreign government) should be signed by the under-secretary. The draft is enclosed.” He was a draftsman of exceptional competence. When issues in the realm of other ministries were referred to him,he quickly approved or rejected them or said that the matter should be submitted to the cabinet for a decision.

Shastri was a man of different timbre,temperament and style. Before rising to the top,he had handled several important ministries — railways,commerce and home — and had done so creditably. But,unlike Nehru,he needed bureaucratic advice as well as help in drafting. He never took a decision in a hurry. He had his own ideas on the economy,of course. But in Jha,an economist and administrator of distinction,he found an excellent exponent of his ideas. To cap it all,what he and his secretary wanted done broadly converged. The issues of particular concern to both were: the need to reduce the size of the Fourth Five-Year Plan,due to begin in 1966,because of shortage of resources; transfer of resources from industry to agriculture; and,in slow and small stages,assignment of a greater role to the private sector. All these were ideas opposed to what Nehru stood for,and therefore liable to be objected to by most members of the Congress party,to whom Nehruvian policies were sacred.

So Jha wrote a carefully worded speech that Shastri delivered in Parliament during his first month as PM. In it,he reaffirmed his loyalty to Nehru’s policies and approach but also asked for the right to think afresh when the situation so warranted.

The huge burden on Shastri,his disorderly working habits and schedule,and his inability to be punctual or terminate needlessly prolonged meetings added to Jha’s powers and influence. Most other secretaries to the government found it difficult to meet the PM,as unfortunately did ministers other than the four most senior. Jha was no longer a secretary to one of the 16 ministries,but the secretary to the fountainhead of decision-making.

No wonder there was intense and widespread resentment,especially from the cabinet secretary,until then the “headmaster of the civil service”,and among those who were technically Jha’s equals but no longer. The situation worsened when he extended his control from economic affairs and domestic policy also to foreign affairs,despite his inexperience in this field apart from attending international economic conferences.

In October 1964,Shastri was to make his first appearance at an international forum at the second summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Cairo. The external affairs ministry had prepared a draft speech for him. Without telling them,Jha did the same. Shastri accepted the latter draft.

Then largely at Jha’s insistence,but supported by others,a “high-powered Committee of Secretaries” was appointed to “deal with” external affairs. Of its six members,two were from economic ministries; the other four were the cabinet and defence secretaries,Jha himself and Foreign Secretary C.S. Jha. The other two secretaries in the MEA were nowhere in the picture. As time passed,L.K. Jha’s role in this country’s crucial diplomatic negotiations became much the greater. This was the case also at the India-Pakistan talks under Soviet auspices in January 1966 in Tashkent,where Shastri’s sadly short era came to an end.

Shastri also formed a highly innovative but absolutely informal decision-making group of the entire Indian Union in which the Centre,state chief ministers and top party leaders were represented. Nicknamed the “grand council of the republic”,it had no legal status,nor a defined membership. It did meet but its minutes were never recorded. However,it performed the useful task of ensuring coordination between the Union government and the states,especially over food and language,the burning problems that Shastri had to cope with.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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