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How Narendra Modi's PMO sings a different, unfamiliar tune to Manmohan Singh's PMO

Tuesday, 2 September 2014 - 7:05am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: dna

Queues at Delhi's Gymkhana and Golf Club, the pleasure seats of ministers, top bureaucrats, corporate and diplomatic corps have thinned out. Even at intellectual clubs such as India International Centre and India Habitat Centre, getting tables is no longer a strenuous task. Since the new prime minister Narendra Modi made his abhorrence to party circuit public, bureaucrats have abandoned these places which were also places of networking with corporate and diplomatic world.

Modi may be accused of closing doors of Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to Delhi's powerful media, by not appointing any media advisor and also abandoning the practice of taking them along during his foreign tours, but the quick decisions and inculcating an authority to the PMO are a marked shift from the previous UPA regime in terms of style of governance.

Corridors of power and party circles in Delhi are agog with stories depicting Modi-style of governance at variance with his predecessor Manmohan Singh. His cabinet meetings are more of tutorials for ministers to learn the art of governance. Insiders say, unlike his predecessor, Modi is quite vocal in the meetings, spelling out his priorities and policy prescriptions.

New Delhi is slowly getting used to unusual things. There are instances like sending back a minister for coming ill-prepared for a presentation on the functioning of his ministry. It is not unusual these days a secretary getting call from the PMO to inform him that Modi was dropping in his office. If the murmur in the power corridors is to be believed, a minister heading to attend a conference of climate change has got a call from the PMO to dress appropriately matching his status of representing India. An MP son of a minister from an allied party was summoned to stop taking favours from the corporate world.

Except rail fare hike which was partially rolled back on suburban journey due to pressures from poll-bound Maharashtra, the NDA government has come across as firm and decisive. Bureaucracy is running with a breakneck speed to clear the pending environment-risked projects. Since June, some 175 clearances are understood to have been granted. Projects were stuck for years during the UPA regime because of all sorts of issues.

As many as 16 major industrial projects, five of them in Gujarat alone, 15 mining projects that include eight in the coal sector and 13 of the 32 infrastructure projects have been approved.

Only five pending industrial projects and two coal mining projects remain to be cleared. In just two sessions on August 12 and 13, the newly-constituted National Board for Wildlife literally burnt midnight oil setting a record of sorts clearing 133 of the 160 proposals.

To allow officials to take decisions, they have been told not to bother about the charge of lack of transparency and not to get bogged down by objections raised by the NGOs and activists, till their own hands are clean.

While Manmohan Singh was blamed for lowering authority of the PMO and subjecting his decisions to the scrutiny of an extra-constitutional authority Congress president Sonia Gandhi, critics blame Modi for concentrating powers in the PMO.

For over past two-and-half months Modi has not only set targets for every ministry, but his controlling, almost everything, reminds powers being wielded by Rajiv Gandhi and his mother Indira Gandhi, who would drop a minister at the drop of a hat.

Unlike the UPA regime in which some influential ministers loyal to 10, Janpath often managed to torpedo the PM's agenda, Modi's ministers seem to have decided to cut them to size for now to carry out his plans.

His decision to dissolve large number of groups of ministers and limiting inter-ministerial consultation to a maximum of two weeks have resulted in quick decisions. The PM also seems overboard to protect image of his council of ministers from any taint. He has created three rings around a cabinet minister — the minister of state, the personal secretary and minister's personal staff, all appointees of the PMO. In the previous UPA government, though Manmohan Singh, himself having an impeccably clean image was tainted by the actions of his ministers and more so, through their personal staff.

The PMO appointments, were though unsual — an ordinance was introduced to change the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act and enable former Trai chairman Nripendra Misra's appointment as principal secretary to the prime minister. Another top-level PMO appointment of Rajiv Nayan Choubey was cancelled within a week of being made over hierarchy issues.

Also, Modi started the stint with a firm message to his BJP colleagues leaving children of party veterans and even not including heavyweights over 75 years out of his cabinet.
A sharp contrast from his predecessor was reconstituting the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet to include only himself and the home minister leaving the ministers concerned out. For many appointments, he did not even call a meeting with home minister Rajnath Singh, but only sought his approval on phone.

But what is disheartening about the Modi government is the communication firewall, visible in various ministries and government departments, which dampens the spirit of vigour. Most communication is one-sided - through social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, with little room for questions and answers.

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