“If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircles us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish, therefore, to wrestle with the snake.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

It is believed that the office of PM Jawaharlal Nehru was assisted by the secretary general of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well as by the Cabinet Office. This office had some joint secretaries assisted by a small secretarial staff known as the PM’s personal staff. In Reminiscences of the Nehru Age, MO Mathai writes that “The staff of the Prime Minister’s secretariat are not responsible for advising on policy or for executing the Prime Minister’s decisions on policy. They are only gatherers and conveyors and, in short, mechanics men.” This being so, the PMS did not seek to substitute the advice being rendered by the cabinet secretary on administrative and other matters with any alternative advice or options.

Hirubhai Mulljibhai (HM) Patel, a distinguished member of the ICS, was the first Indian civilian to be given an important position in the Secretariat when he was appointed joint secretary of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. He had risen to become the effective secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat. He was also appointed principal private secretary to PM Nehru. Viceroy Archibald Wavell clarified in his letter to Frederick Pethick-Lawrence on 10 September 1946 that Nehru’s “Private Secretariat will be integrated with the Cabinet Secretariat and I think it will be easier for Nehru and also limit the occasions on which he goes off at a tangent.”

Nehru’s PMS was not significant since he believed in the institutional structure of the Cabinet Office, which he had inherited.

In fact, in 1958-59, the strength of the PMS was reduced to 129, and in 1961, Nehru reduced it further to just over a hundred. This further strengthened the office of the cabinet secretary, who had legitimacy in his advisory role, considering that the rules of Allocation of Business (AoB) described his office as the secretary to the Council of Ministers.

This arrangement continued for long. Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded Nehru in June 1964. Within a few months, LK [Lakshmi Kant Jha], then secretary DEA, was appointed for the first time as secretary to the PM on 13 July 1964. This made a spectacular difference in the hierarchy.

Thus, for the first time, the PMS got a distinct status under the change effective in the Government of India (Allocation of Business Rules, 1961) on 16 June 1964. There was now a new insertion in the AoB Rules, which had the following explanation for the PMS, “To provide secretarial assistance to the PM.”

Upon hearing the news of LK’s appointment, I remember my father [TP Singh] asked me to accompany him to LK’s house at that time: 36, Aurangzeb Road. This was wonderful news for our family too, as LK and my parents had known each other for a very long time and had a shared lineage from Bhagalpur, Bihar. LK had stayed in this house for very long before he moved to 9, Race Course Road (now Lok Kalyan Marg).

It is interesting that this Race Course house, along with three other houses, was later combined to create the PM’s residence-cum-office from Rajiv Gandhi’s period onwards. Thus, the residence of the secretary to the PM was to later become the residence of the PM.

My father, while congratulating him, jocularly remarked, “Congratulations, LK, for two things: First, for the high office you now occupy; and second, for this remarkable coup, which has now permanently destroyed the traditional ethos of the Civil Services establishment.”

LK was quick to quip, “How can you say that? I have a profound respect for the cabinet secretary.”

My father retorted, “Let’s not get into semantics. Time will tell.”

This structural change permanently eroded the primacy of the cabinet secretary. My father then said that it was obvious that the primacy of the position of the cabinet secretary emanated from his being the last person to tender any advice to the PM and that from here onwards, as secretary to the PM, LK’s note would be the last one to be read by the PM. This made a qualitative and structural difference in the hierarchy of the civil service establishment.

In retrospect, perhaps my father’s observations were not too off the mark. The PMS rose in importance while the office of the cabinet secretary continued to diminish. There have been variations over time in the distribution of power and authority, although the fundamental transition on that fateful day has never been reversed.

LK continued to function from the PMS even after Shastri, who had appointed him, suddenly passed away in Tashkent on 11 January 1966. Mrs Gandhi took over that very month and continued with the arrangement she had inherited. However, there were other changes taking place in the milieu with the growing influence of the Left parties and the disenchantment with the Indo-US relationship. LK was feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

On their visit to Washington in 1966, the party from Delhi included LK, Pitambar Pant, HM Patel and Mrs Gandhi’s personal staff. Braj Kumar (BK) Nehru was already there as ambassador. Indraprasad Gordhanbhai (IG) Patel describes the transition in Glimpses of Indian Economic Policy:

“In London, we changed planes and boarded the presidential plane sent for Mrs Gandhi. Among those who joined us there were her two boys – Rajiv and Sanjay – and somewhat mysterious figure at that time, Parmeshwar Narain (PN) Haksar. Most of us did not know him and had no idea why he was there. However, it soon became clear that he was to succeed LK, whom Mrs Gandhi did not trust. Haksar, a very able IFS officer, was apparently an old friend and a leftist who was closer to Mrs Gandhi personally, if not ideologically.”

The replacement of LK with Haksar was followed by LK being dispatched as governor of the RBI in 1967. Haksar, notwithstanding his intellectual accomplishments, had a pronounced leftist bias.

While governments in office are invariably driven by their ideological orientation, the neutrality of the ICS/IAS creates a firewall between civil servants implementing the policy design of the political masters. This is how parliamentary democracies function effectively. The thrust of ideology in the working of the bureaucracy could be pardonable if this orientation did not overlap with questionable decisions inter alia on preferred appointments.

Given Haksar’s ideological bias, very soon the concept of committed officers came increasingly into vogue. Meritocracy took a back seat. Naturally, playing favourites became the only game in town. Haksar’s strong preference in the areas of foreign policy, defence and strategic affairs created a gap in the management of economic policy.

While Haksar had been the secretary to the PM from July 1967 to December 1971, he became principal secretary to the PM thereafter and remained in that office up to 28 February 1973. Very soon, PN Dhar, whom I had known as a teacher at DSE, was appointed as secretary to the PM in 1971 to look after economic and trade policy issues.

Creating structure upon structure generates its own dynamics as each one looks for an enlarged turf. The PMS soon acquired several joint secretaries reporting to either Dhar or Haksar. There were some like BN Tandon looking after the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet and reporting to Haksar, while others like G Ramachandran looked after economic policy, working closely with Dhar. The net result was that multiple layers of decision- making disintegrated the chain of responsibility / accountability and led to the usual jostling for power and influence. No one understood the thinking process and appropriate speech writing skills more than her advisor, HY Sharada Prasad.

The emasculation of the Cabinet Office was nearly complete. The PMS mirrored a parallel government.

The PM, thereafter, did not see files directly sent to him / her either by the Cabinet Office or by relevant ministers. Files were marked down to the concerned joint secretaries, who would then obtain orders from the principal secretary, depending on their importance and the allocative functions assigned between them.

The PM would see the shadow notes recorded by the PMS official suggesting a decision or a course of action, beneath which the original file was usually kept. This gave the option to the PM to either read the full file or its more succinct version along with a proposed course of action by the senior official of the PMS.

Creating a government within a government undercuts the basic constitutional framework. It nudges us in the direction of a presidential model not intended or designed by the framers of the Constitution of India. Of course, this resulted in the enormous concentration of power in the hands of the PMS. Haksar had convinced Mrs Gandhi that it was the only way to govern, subjugate and rise in stature. The days of “goongi gudiya” (mute doll), a pejorative term used to describe her on her assumption of office, were now a far cry. She rose in stature as indeed did this model of governance.

Portraits of Power: Half a Century of Being at the Ringside

Excerpted with permission from Portraits of Power: Half a Century of Being at the Ringside, NK Singh, Rupa Publications.