THE Indian cabinet is in a shambles today. This reality has been totally ignored in comments on its recent reshuffle. The manner in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi went about the exercise was more akin to that of a school teacher than that of a prime minister.
On June 30, there was a four-and-a-half hour 'stock-taking' with a presentation of 110 slides on the status of budget announcements, ministry-wise. Ministers spoke on their work; the prime minister offered his comments, asked questions and made a mental note of whom to promote and whom to show the door. Prime ministers assess their colleagues' performance, but do so on the quiet.
The manner of the cabinet's reshuffle is very much like the formation of the cabinet. In less than a fortnight after assuming office, Modi identified all important policy issues as a portfolio subject within his remit, in the allocation of cabinet responsibilities, giving his own office powers over ministries to control and direct crucial policy matters.
The intention was to focus policymaking in the prime minister's office and ensure that all ministers obtained approvals at the initial stages.
Next, on June 4, Modi met around 50 secretaries to the government of India. His message was that in case of a 'conflict' between the top bureaucrats of a ministry and the minister, the matter should be brought to Modi's notice immediately. He would be accessible to all the officers and encouraged them to approach him with their inputs. "You can meet me at any time. You can contact me on email or ring me up."
As Sir Ivor Jennings, a leading authority, wrote: "Cabinet government is not just government by a cabinet; it is a whole scheme of government in which ultimate responsibility for political decisions is vested in the cabinet. Ministers are concerned with policy and not with administration. … Ministers have a right to determine policy."
The Indian constitution itself lays down the basics of the system. Article 74 says: (1) There shall be a council of ministers with the prime minister at the head to aid and advise the president.… [T]he president may require the council … to reconsider such advice." It was the council as a body, not its head, the prime minister alone.
Article 78 says: "It shall be the duty of the prime minister to … if the president so requires, to submit for the consideration of the council of ministers any matter on which a decision has been taken by a minister but which has not been considered by the council."
The constitution thus explicitly envisages that the council of ministers should act collectively. It is a subversion of the constitution if the ministers are reduced to the status of the prime minister's errand boys.
In recent years, there has been a growth in the powers and importance of the prime minister's office. This means the primacy of the civil servant who heads it — the principal secretary. No prime minister can possibly look after all the myriad affairs of the government. Nor can the ministers. Civil servants have a role to play, with clear-cut duties to perform. This is how the cabinet works in the parliamentary system.
That said, it is also unrealistic to gloss over a development of the cabinet system in all parliamentary democracies, especially Britain. Unfortunately, the discourse has been marred by extreme positions. Some hold that the prime minister has no primacy which, of course, was utter nonsense.
The other extreme was articulated by Richard Crossman in his introduction to the third edition of Bagehot's classic, The English Constitution (1867), which Crossman wrote half a century ago.
He spoke of "prime ministerial government" and cited instances of prime ministers taking decisions on sensitive matters without reference to the cabinet. Attlee had decided to test the atom bomb and Eden to march into the Suez; in each case the cabinet was not consulted.
The prime minister under whom Crossman had served refuted him. Harold Wilson said, "A prime minister is more powerful than any other member of his cabinet but not more powerful than two or three senior ministers working together and certainly not more powerful than the rest of the cabinet taken as a whole."
Margaret Thatcher discovered that truth belatedly. She had to resign because she had forfeited the trust of the cabinet; a process triggered by a resignation speech delivered by her deputy, Geoffrey Howe, in the House of Commons in 1990.
He said, "Cabinet government is all about trying to persuade one another from within. That was my commitment to government by persuasion, persuading colleagues and the nation." His denunciation of subversion of the cabinet spelt Thatcher's doom.