Monday, October 10, 2011

Race Course Road/ The Sunday Standard Magazine/October 09, 2011

Manmohan can depend on well-treated CMs

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may not be able to handle some of his recalcitrant ministers, but his equation with the chief ministers is rather smooth and cordial. With more than half of them belonging to non-Congress parties, the PMO deals with them with extra care. Indeed, the Prime Minister has evolved a special mechanism which ensures a prompt response to any communication from a chief minister. V Narayanswamy, Minister of State in the PMO, has been assigned the task of going through the letters and suggesting appropriate response, both political and administrative. The special attention is not surprising, considering that some of the chief ministers not only control their own party, but are also in a position to destabilise the Government at the Centre. And it’s these very chief ministers who prefer to deal with the Prime Minister directly even on matters which don’t come under his direct charge. Unlike most of the BJP and Congress chief ministers who prefer to deal with the ministers concerned, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, J Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi talk only to the man at the top. But there are differences even among these ‘special correspondents’. While Patnaik, Nitish and Modi write rarely, the Prime Minister is flooded with letters from Jayalalithaa and Mayawati, almost on a weekly basis. Both of them raise fundamental issues like security and poor availability of funds for Centrally-sponsored schemes. The flow of letters from Mayawati has substantially increased of late, with most of the letters being written keeping the forthcoming elections in mind. Sources at the PMO say while all the chief ministers get a quick response, the women chief ministers’ letters are dealt with at breakneck speed as they are the ones who raise the most demands and even try to influence foreign policy. All the hard work is paying off. The Prime Minister may be under attack from various quarters but the chief ministers have refrained from attacking him.

Rahul Cabinet Before Rahul PM?

While no one is speculating about any Cabinet expansion or reshuffle in the near future, there are a few well-connected political birdies who are twittering about significant changes in the composition and character of the Union Council of Ministers. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn’t rule out the possibility while speaking to the media after the last reshuffle. With Sonia back and Rahul taking unusual interest in the functioning of the Government, the Congress leadership is seriously looking for a new-look Cabinet that will lead the party in the 2014 elections. Most of the ministers who are above 70 and have been in the Government for more than seven years are likely to be moved out. Over half a dozen young ministers will be given either independent charge or elevated to Cabinet level. Of the dozen-odd young ones, those with a rural base and who pose no threat to Rahul Gandhi will be given preference. Some of them have already been given the political responsibility of handling the election-bound states and are reporting directly to Rahul. In fact for many young ministers, all roads now lead to 12, Tughlak Lane, the official residence of the young Gandhi.

Back to Babulok For Manmohan

The Congress party appears to be visibly happy with the formal induction of Pulok Chatterjee as principal secretary to the Prime Minister. Chatterjee is not the youngest-ever principal secretary since the 1980s, he is also the first officer to return to the PMO as the most powerful civil servant after serving there at a junior level. He joined the PMO as joint secretary soon after Manmohan Singh took over as Prime Minister in 2004. Earlier, he served as private secretary to Sonia Gandhi when she was Leader of the Opposition and dealt with Manmohan Singh who was then Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. Chatterjee is known as much for his high personal integrity and efficiency as his loyalty to the Gandhis. As the returning officer for Amethi Constituency, he created a flutter in bureaucratic circles for standing up when Rajiv Gandhi came in to file his nomination for the Lok Sabha elections in 1981. Given that he enjoys the confidence of Sonia, the party expects the relationship between the Government and the party to improve with his coming. Along with Chatterjee, the Prime Minister has also brought in some other officials. One is his former private secretary B V R Subramanyam, who returns to the PMO as a joint secretary. He replaces Vini Mahajan, who was in the news for receiving a controversial note from the finance ministry on 2G scam. The Prime Minister has also brought in two young IAS officers from his home state of Punjab and Assam, his political habitat. With the politicians letting him down, the Prime Minister needs to depend on his babus to survive the remaining term.

Pulok Will Start From the Top

One of Pulok Chatterjee’s top priorities will be finding the right people for filling the posts of secretaries. By the end of this year, over half a dozen senior secretaries, including Secretary, Commerce, Steel and Health, will have either retired or be retiring soon. His predecessor TKA Nair stopped processing his files once he knew Chatterjee was to join. Last week, Raghu Menon, Secretary, Information and Broadcasting, retired. Since the PMO was unable to fill in the vacancy in time, an additional secretary was given charge for couple of days. The delay was due to political leadership’s inability to arrive at a consensus. Since the I&B Ministry is likely to play an important role during the next few months, Minister Ambika Soni wants an officer who has no political affiliations and can help her project the correct image of the government. According to procedure, it is the PMO which chooses a person to fill a post of a secretary and merely consults the minister concerned. Manmohan Singh had extended the courtesy to the minister to make the first move. But with Chatterjee’s induction, the PMO is bound to have the last word on all senior-level appointments.

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