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Morarji Desai, principal secretary V Shankar gave PMO its name. Then the office was downsized

By: Dr. Sanjeev Chopra

Indira Gandhi suffered a resounding defeat at the post-Emergency hustings in 1977, and after much deliberation, the newly formed Janata Party and its alliance partners—most notably the Congress for Democracy—settled on Morarji Desai as the  Prime Minister of India. Morarji, who was then 81, had lost out on the pole position twice – first in 1964 to Lal Bahadur Shastri, and then to Indira Gandhi in 1966, and he was determined not to let go of his last chance to become the helmsman of India. Among his first tasks was the appointment of his confidante V Shankar of the Indian Civil Services, who had been in retirement for over a decade, to the position of his principal secretary.

Shankar was a distinguished civil servant: he had been the secretary to Sardar Patel and had also been his choice as the member secretary of the first Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) of which Desai was the Chairman. They were also related—Shankar’s daughter was married to Desai’s grandson. This found a mention in the no-confidence motion (NCM) against Desai in 1979. However, there were no specific allegations against him.

Like Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar and Gandhi, and Lakshmi Kant Jha and Shastri, the relationship between Desai and Shankar was of complete trust. One of the first actions taken by Desai and Shankar was coming up with a new nomenclature for the Prime Minister’s Office. From PMS, they changed it to PMO and the name has continued since then. So, from a purely technical point of view, Shankar was the first Principal Secretary in the PMO.

Resurrecting cabinet secretary’s position

With the change in the name, there was also an attempt to rationalise the tasks of the PMO by the Janata Party government. According to an India Today report of 1977, the Centre promised that it would be totally “reorganised” and that all the departments would revert to their parent departments. As such, the PMO was divested of some of its policymaking units like the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), and the Foreign Investment Promotion Board.  But the legacy of the PMS/PMO was so deeply entrenched by now that the extant bureaucratic and ministerial habit of more than a decade saw the bureaucracy looking up to Shankar for guidance and advice. Despite all their commitment and effort, the downsizing was more symbolic than substantial— numbers dropped from 229 to 211, and that too at the junior level. 

However, like his predecessors, Shankar was privy to all the crucial meetings, including the one in which Desai was asked by his cabinet colleagues, especially Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to give the go-ahead to scientist Homi Sethna to commence research for a nuclear weapon. This decision was made after the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessment that Pakistan was on its way to ‘producing a nuclear weapon with enriched uranium obtained through the centrifuge process’. According to strategic affairs analyst K Subramanyam, this meeting was attended by five cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Vajpayee, Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram, Home Minister HM Patel, and Finance Minister Charan Singh,  and only three officials were present, cabinet secretary Nirmal  Mukarji, Shankar, and Sethna, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Although Shankar and Sethna had their differences on the  US proposal on  ‘the feasibility of the full scope safeguards to the Indian nuclear programme’,  the crucial decisions about India’s nuclear programme were taken during Desai’s tenure. This also shows the gradual evolution of India’s nuclear strategy from the times of Shastri, who had said in 1964 that “even though we have the technical capacity to make the bomb, we will exercise restraint for now”.

Officers and team players

With the collapse of the Desai government, Shankar tendered his resignation. When Charan Singh took over as the Prime Minister, CR Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib was made the cabinet secretary. Rao Sahib held the post for about a year during Singh and Gandhi’s prime ministership and demitted office in 1985. He truly imbibed the principles of civil service:  efficiency, integrity, and anonymity. On 28 November 2006, Rao Sahib talked about his tenure in his Ramanujam Memorial lecture at the India International Centre in New Delhi.

The officer also gave his mantra: In practical terms, an attitude of humility translates to better functioning in many ways. Indian administrative officers with this attribute will at least be good listeners. They will learn from others, whether it’s the masses or their subordinates and colleagues. Their appreciation of any situation that they are confronted with will thus be more accurate and complete, and as a consequence, they will be in a position to fashion a response that is more effective and satisfying. By not taking themselves too seriously (but without the slightest dilution of their commitment to the work on hand) they may develop a sense of humour and create a more amiable working environment. Such officers will, above all, be better team players. 

No person, however talented and knowledgeable, can achieve as significant an impact as a team that exploits the synergistic opportunities available to it, producing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. “If time teaches us humility, so does space. Look around you; we live in a mysterious world. The more we discover, the deeper the mystery. We are now told that the bulk of the substance in the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy of which we know little and that our entire universe may be one among innumerable others of which we can have no inkling,” Rao Sahib explained. 

The best tribute to Rao Sahib came from former President Abdul Kalam in his address on the occasion of the 7th Civil Services Day on 21 April 2012. Recalling a meeting where the cabinet members weren’t ready to sanction the development and production of five missiles together due to the delay in previous projects, Kalam said Rao Sahib made a remark that kept “ringing in his mind.”

“Hon’ble Minister sir, I heard all the discussion. But I would like to convey one thing. The time has come, we have to take a decision, explore new path with courage. We should not be mixed up with the past. Presently, we are seeing a committed passionate leadership for the missile programme. I consider that all the missiles should be developed, simultaneously in an integrated way,” Rao had said. 

Rao Sahib went on to receive India’s second-highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, in 2006. Incidentally, Haksar had also been offered the award by Indira Gandhi in 1974, but he recused himself saying that civil servants should not take credit for work done in the ordinary course of their duty. 

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

This article is part of a series on the PMO.

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