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All the PM’s Men: 13 Issues that Tell Us How the PMO Helps Modi Run a Presidential Govt

Those who are appointed to Modi’s office ensure that the spotlight remains only on the PM, in times of crisis – as the rescuer – and when the going is good.
Narendra Modi. In the background are images showing Rafale aircraft, the disputed Nepal map, the Ram Temple inauguration and a protest in Sri Lanka.

Narendra Modi’s super-centralised decision-making gives little hope that he will be ‘collective’ as he sets about constructing a coalition government. This centralisation is also why he has had to face a far less-than-ideal outcome this election. This is part two of a series that looks at Modi’s PMO – which reflects this tendency far better than any other metric. Read the first here.

New Delhi: In the run-up to India’s G20 presidency, the number of Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers at the Prime Minister’s Office went up to seven.

Senior IFS officer Deepak Mittal was brought in to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office in November 2022, along with Vipin Kumar and Nidhi Tewari. While Mittal, a 1998 batch IFS officer, was appointed an officer on special duty (OSD), Kumar and Tewari, belonging to the 2013 and 2014 batches of the IFS respectively, and were placed at Modi’s office as a deputy secretary and under secretary respectively.  

The list of officers in the PMO website, after the G20 summit, however, shows that five IFS officers are engaged in various posts — a number that equals the PMO under Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh.

Considering that the endeavour of the Modi regime was to turn the G20 presidency of India, though granted by rotation, as its foreign policy achievement, and to particularly showcase PM Modi as a ‘strong world leader’ to the Indian public, his office taking some amount of direct control of the mega year-long event was explainable. 

However, some other key issues, concerns and crises handled by the Modi government, both domestic and related to foreign affairs, establishes another fact – that the PMO under Modi has been functioning almost in the style of a presidency, an unprecedented occurrence in the world’s largest parliamentary democracy. 

Off and on, there have been references to Modi’s ‘presidential’ style of functioning in a parliamentary democracy, particularly because of his regime’s thrust on promoting ‘Brand Modi,’ and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) contesting all its elections by singularly projecting him. 

Modi’s massive 2019 win was seen by many as ominous to India’s democracy because the mandate was achieved by converting the race into a presidential style of election between Prime Minister Modi and a non-existent contender from the opposition parties.  

On looking back at the last five years, it seems that the mandate augmented a presidential style of governance by the Modi regime – with the PMO as its centrepiece. This style is more apparent when you take into consideration some setbacks and concerns that the Modi government came to face after his 2019 win. 

Modi being the prime minister, heads the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) while the other member is his deputy, the home minister Amit Shah. In the last five years, some officers who served in key positions at the PMO were seen to have been dispatched by the ACC to handle significant concerns of the government. Perhaps the concern was that they might go out of hand and thereby tarnish the image of the prime minister as a strong leader. Some other officers were also pulled in by the ACC to work in Modi’s office, to likely ensure that a system that has been designed to put the spotlight only on the prime minister runs smoothly.

How 13 key issues were handled by the second Modi regime through officers posted at the PMO can drive home the point. 

The Rafale deal 

In October 2015, IFS officer Vinay Mohan Kwatra was appointed as an officer on special duty (OSD) at the PMO for three years. That year in April, PM Modi, during his visit to France, had agreed to buy 36 Rafale aircrafts from the French giant Dassault by curiously overturning his government’s decision to instead go for Sukhoi jets. 

In October 2016, the Modi government signed the memorandum of understanding with France for that delivery. It was also around the same time when the Reliance Group of Anil Ambani jointly formed a company with Dassault to help deliver components for those jets.

In July 2017, Kwatra was sent from the PMO to Paris – to serve as India’s ambassador to that country. The posting to France of the top PMO official also coincided with the controversy around the Rafale deal, raised by the opposition Congress highlighting that the contract to Dassault signed by the Manmohan Singh government which was cancelled by the Modi government, had agreed on the delivery of 126 jets for a much lesser price. 

Allegations of favouritism to the Ambanis were raised in the run-up to the 2019 general elections while the Modi government kept saying that it has nothing to do with the industrialist. 

Kwatra continued on that post in France till February 2020. By then, in November 2019, the then Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, had dismissed a petition alleging wrongdoing by the Modi government. Gogoi sought a directive to initiate a probe on the deal. 

Modi was safely ashore too for a second term after an election in which the Balakot strike and the Pulwama attack were made major poll issues by him. The SC decision to not to reopen that case came within the first year of the second term of Modi. This also hugely helped his government bury the matter and set aside the opposition’s demand for a probe. Gogoi’s judgement helped fortify the BJP government under Modi as one free of corruption – something that he continuously accuses the Congress of.

Meanwhile, the French press itself was abuzz in July 2021 after the former French president Francois Hollande stated in an explosive interview that the Indian government had proposed the name of Anil Ambani as an industrial partner for that bilateral deal. 

India-Nepal map issue 

In March 2020, Kwatra was sent to Nepal as India’s next ambassador. It was also the time when India was engaged with Nepal on the topic of a controversial map created by the Nepal government which included certain areas on the Indian border as part of that country. In May 2020, the Nepal cabinet approved that map. It was Kwatra as Indian ambassador to Nepal who held several key meetings to keep the issue under control with a regime that was seen tilting towards China. 

The foreign secretary

In April 2022, the Modi government announced Kwatra as the next foreign secretary. In February 2023, Kwatra travelled back to Nepal to invite the Nepalese prime minister Prachanda to visit India, marking it as not only his first official visit to any country after taking over the reins in December 2022, but also the first high-level outreach by India to a Left leaning regime.

During that ensuing visit, Modi reiterated solving the border dispute mutually with a country that has cultural affinity with India. 

In the last few days though, while Modi has been busy ensuring a third term at office, the Nepal-India territorial row has raised its head again. His trusted PMO hand, Kwatra, is in office as his foreign secretary till October 2024. 

Handling the Sri Lankan financial crisis

Yet another IFS officer, Gopal Baglay, had been serving as joint secretary at the PMO since 2017. In May 2022, he was asked to take up the post of India’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka. Baglay served at that post till December 2023 before being sent to Australia as India’s next ambassador, but by then, he had helped fortify the Modi regime’s image within the power corridors of Sri Lanka over the fact that it had come to the country’s rescue during one its roughest times.

Under the watch of the man sent from the PMO, India extended to a financially-hit Sri Lanka assistance worth US $ four billion in 2022 through multiple credit lines and currency support.

Handling the arrest of 8 naval officers in Qatar

In April 2020, IFS officer Deepak Mittal was appointed as India’s ambassador to Qatar. In August that year, 8 Indian naval officers were arrested in Qatar on charge of spying for Israel. 

Mittal was handling the negotiations of the India government on the pesky issue since with Qatar till November 2022, when he was brought back to the PMO as an advisor to the prime minister. 

Mittal handled the crisis from the PMO with a strategy that included a meeting in Dubai between Modi and the Emir of Qatar last December. It also helped present the prime minister as the man directly dealing with the crisis when traditional channels would have  the Ministry of External Affairs dealing with it.

When in February 2024, the naval officers were released, they thanked Modi. Modi, too, immediately went to visit the Emir in Qatar, thus furthering his domestic image as a ‘strong leader’.

One more PMO man thus delivered to keep the presidential style of governance of Modi ticking, and thereby, Brand Modi. 

This effort was particularly talked about during the tenure of Sushma Swaraj, who was the external affairs minister in the first term of Modi. Instead of Swaraj, Modi was increasingly shown handling important foreign affairs issues or meetings – as the face of India’s foreign policy. In some foreign trips of Modi’s, Swaraj did not even accompany him, leading a set of opposition leaders to state in 2017 that Modi was not making optimum use of the minister. Swaraj’s sidelining was talked about in media too; and the fact that during her entire term, she did not give a single media interview. She was appreciated in the media for still making a mark as a foreign minister by reaching out to the Indian diaspora in need of the government’s help on social media. 

The incumbent foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, is conscious about the importance of foreign affairs in Brand Modi, and is often heard giving credit to Modi, even if it has been the minister who has handled an issue. 

Revenue secretary and GST implementation  

Yet another man who helped Modi run a presidential style of governance was Tarun Bajaj. He served first as a joint secretary and then as additional secretary at Modi’s office – between April 2015 and July 2017. 

Bajaj was thereafter dispatched to the department of economic affairs under the Union finance ministry as the secretary. He was, in fact, being groomed to take over as India’s revenue secretary, the officer that handles the Union Budgets. He particularly looked into taxation, an important component of the budgets. In August 2022, Bajaj was also accorded the additional charge of corporate secretary. He was the PMO’s man looking at the financial part of the Modi government which also includes handling complaints around the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST).

Bajaj continued on that post till 2023 when Sanjay Malhotra took over from him as the revenue secretary. 

Handling UP where Modi 2.0 got the highest number of LS seats 

A PMO man was sent to Uttar Pradesh where Modi’s sizeable 2019 mandate hugely drew from. It was IAS officer A. K. Sharma. 

Sharma went to UP to contest the 2022 assembly elections and then became a cabinet minister in the Adityanath government. He is often termed in Lucknow as the PMO’s eyes and ears in the Adityanath government. His entry into the UP government was also timed with the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, which would go on to project Modi months before the crucial elections as the proverbial king and the priest to have “given back” the temple to the Hindus. 

Sharma thus became yet another PMO man to deliver Brand Modi by centralising power. 

Modi’s Ram Mandir agenda 

The Ram temple at Ayodhya also involved another PMO man, Nripendra Misra.

When he resigned from the post of the principal secretary at the PMO in August 2019, after serving Modi for five years, one wondered what would he do next. Weeks later, the trusted Modi aide was made chairperson of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), the official residence of the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru which during Modi’s era was overhauled to become a museum for all prime ministers. One floor of it exclusively promoted Modi. 

A month later, Misra was handed the task of completing the temple project for Modi. It was under Misra’s watch that the consecration ceremony of the temple was carried out this January. There, the prime minister of a secular country took on the role of a priest and Brand Modi had its moment again.

Misra’s son Saket was nominated to the legislative council of UP. The BJP launched him as its candidate for these parliamentary polls from the Shravasti Lok Sabha seat. He lost.

Handling MGNREGA

IAS officer Amarjeet Sinha had retired in December 2019 as secretary, Ministry of Rural Development. After retirement, in February 2020, he was appointed at the PMO as one of Modi’s advisors. 

In August 2021, though, he quit the PMO, becoming one of the topmost bureaucrats to have resigned from Modi’s office after Pradeep Kumar Sinha. Pradeep Kumar had hit headlines for having given extensions as cabinet secretary in an unprecedented manner before he was appointed at the PMO. As cabinet secretary, he was also part of the committee that had picked Urijit Patel as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, replacing Raghuram Rajan. 

As far as Amarjeet was concerned, it seems his departure was just a cooling off period, because in November 2022, he was back in the Modi government. This time he was appointed to lead a committee to make structural reforms in the MGNREGA scheme. He delivered a report that questioned the very basis of the flagship scheme of the Congress era.

Kedarnath-Badrinath project

From time to time, Brand Modi pushers have also projected the prime minister as no less a man with a jhola, a sadhu, seeking peace in the caves of Kedarnath-Badrinath. 

That carefully cultivated image of the prime minister is also attached to refurbishing the shines there for which the Modi government is spending a huge sum of public money. 

In June 2022, Bhaskar Khulbe, another officer appointed to the PMO along with Amarjeet Sinha, was sent off to Uttarakhand as an OSD to the state government. Khulbe is native to Uttarakhand. 

Khulbe is now the PMO’s man in Uttarakhand to push Modi’s shrines project. Significantly, it was Khulbe who not only oversaw the rescue mission of the workers in the Silkyara tunnel in November 2023 but also carefully controlled the image of Modi by ensuring that the prime minister talks to the workers first after their rescue. He also kept reiterating to local reporters that the PMO was directly overseeing the rescue mission. 

Handling COVID-19 crisis 

Keeping Modi’s presidential style going – with the help of the direct intervention of the PMO in day-to-day running of the government as a whole – was adopting during the COVID-19 pandemic too. The officer giving the daily bulletin to media persons on the COVID-19 scenario was a PMO official, Punya Salila Srivastava. 

With the pandemic scenario worsening, Srivastava, an Arunachal Pradesh-Goa-Mizoram and Union Territory or AGMUT cadre officer, was brought to the PMO from the Ministry of Home Affairs in October 2021. Punya was seen reading the government’s bulletin on COVID-19 – particularly in Hindi – every evening on national television, which helped send out a message to the public, particularly in the Hindi belt, that the government under Modi is fighting the virus.

There was also Tarun Kapoor, a bureaucrat who while serving as the secretary at the Union petroleum ministry, had ensured free delivery of gas cylinders under Modi’s flagship household scheme during the pandemic. Often called a ‘Modi man’, Kapoor was inducted into the PMO after retirement, in May 2022.

Handling Kashmir after reading down of Article 370

Of course, one of the biggest decisions of the Modi government soon after the 2019 win was making Article 370 ineffective in Jammu and Kashmir. It is common knowledge that the PMO, led by Modi’s national security advisor Ajit Doval, was handling the situation in Kashmir. Remember the video clip  of Doval sharing biryani with some locals while interacting with them about the Modi government’s decision? 

Handling CAG 

Yet another Modi aide who was immediately placed in Kashmir after the state was turned into a union territory was G.C. Murmu, a Gujarat cadre IAS officer seen extremely close to Modi since the 2002 riots in that state. 

In August 2020, he was appointed as the comptroller and auditor general of India (CAG) under whose watch there was not much scrutiny of the Modi government

The appointment of officials handpicked only by the prime minister to handle issues and concerns of his government only indicates that there is an attempt to tightly control the narrative.

IAS officer who discovered the fodder scam 

Amit Khare, as higher education secretary in the central government, is often given the credit of shaping the new National Educational Policy. In October 2021, the ACC led by Modi, brought him to the PMO as one of his advisors.

Significantly, as a young bureaucrat of the Bihar cadre in the mid 1990s, Khare had shot to fame for having stumbled upon the fodder scam of the Lalu Prasad Yadav regime. A series of cases were filed on the corruption case thereafter. 

Curiously, Khare’s term at the PMO also coincided with the central bureau of investigation (CBI) getting clearance from the government to reopen the case. It ultimately led to Lalu’s conviction for five years by a CBI court in one of the fodder scam cases in February 2022. 

Lalu going to jail might have given Modi the hope that his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), would crumble in his absence; his son Tejaswi Yadav was also implicated in a corruption case which helped the BJP return to power in Bihar even after losing an election, in cahoots with the Janata Dal (United).

However, contrary to the BJP’s hopes, Tejashwi has emerged as a young leader with a strong connect with the ground – something that Brand Modi promotes for the prime minister too.

Meanwhile, Khare’s term was extended in October 2023 to match the term of the prime minster. 

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