In one of his first actions as prime minister, Narendra Modi has identified critical policy matters, and indicated that he may switch the default working arrangements with ministries to better implement them. His PMO could take a far more active policy formulating role, operating through the cabinet secretariat with or without extensive prior consultation with ministries. This is expected to speed up administration and policy-making, and make sure that Modi and his chosen civil servants decisively shape the agenda. His electoral mandate allows him the freedom to do so, given that he has no “coalition compulsions”, and he is undisputedly the most powerful leader in his party.
For 10 years, the prime minister’s office had been relegated to being simply one set of chambers in the South Block of the Central Secretariat. Manmohan Singh was prime minister, but acutely aware that political authority resided in 10, Janpath and the Congress office. His office did craft policy, but it was subject to — and seemed excessively vulnerable to — the inputs of his colleagues in the cabinet, and the desires of his party. This often watered down important legislation and policy, and made every initiative a slow-moving, circuitous process. On social policy, the PMO had to contend with the will of the NAC. On matters of urgency for the economy, his cabinet colleagues undermined Singh’s authority and squabbled with each other, leading to destructive impasses. For years, and most acutely in the tenure of UPA 2, this structural tension remained unaddressed as committees, groups of ministers and empowered groups of ministers proliferated.
Unlike Singh, Modi comes to the PMO with no ambivalence about his power, and an appetite for using it. But he must avoid the impulse to overcompensate for the perceived weaknesses of the previous government. When ministries or other agencies resist a policy initiative, the PMO must hear out their positions and defer to them when needed. A centralised structure has many advantages of speed and efficiency, but Modi must rely on the distributed intelligence of his government for a robust policy. Also, while he does not have to be a conciliator, he must not disregard rules as mere quibbles when they present an inconvenience either. In spite of his decisive mandate, and also because of it, Modi must be careful of imposing policy by prime ministerial fiat.