To reduce the members of the Council of Ministers to ciphers is to subvert
the Constitution. The trend has been set afoot. By A.G. NOORANI

ON July 15, 1947, Vallabhbhai Patel informed the Constituent Assembly that
they had opted “for the parliamentary system of the Constitution, the
British type of Constitution with which we are familiar’’(*Constituent
Assembly Debates*; Volume 4; page 578). He was reporting on the decision,
on June 7, 1947, of the Joint Meeting of the Union and Provincial
Constitution Committees. The Supreme Court has ruled time and again that
the Conventions of the British Constitution are relevant in interpreting
the text of India’s Constitution, which is very much based on those

However, the British Constitution “presumes more boldly than any other, the
good faith of those who work it”(William Ewart Gladstone;*Gleanings of Past
Years* (1879); Volume 1; page 245). And the architect of the Constitution,
Dr B.R. Ambedkar, prophetically warned the Assembly, on November 4, 1948,
that “it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without
changing its form, by merely changing the form of the administration and to
make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution.
Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be
cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it….
Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is
undemocratic’’ (*CAD*; Volume 7; page 38).

He was introducing the draft Constitution in the Constituent Assembly. A
year later, on November 25, 1949, replying to the general debate in the
Assembly before its adoption, he warned against hero worship. “Bhakti in
religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics,
Bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual
dictatorship” (*CAD*; Volume 11; pages 978-9). Popular heroes such as
Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were present in the House when
Ambedkar said these words.

India has witnessed the ravages to its parliamentary democracy when two
Prime Ministers, each enjoying a massive majority in the Lok Sabha, rode
roughshod over the Cabinet, suborned the civil service and underlined
parliamentary democracy—Indira Gandhi in 1971-1977 and 1980-1984, and Rajiv
Gandhi in 1984-1989. Nor have some Chief Ministers in the States lagged
behind in this. As Chief Minister, Mayawati had no qualms about boasting
“my Ministers have no powers—all the powers rest in me. *In fact, I’ve told
the Secretaries to keep an eye on the Ministers*” (*India Today*; July 1,
2002; emphasis added, throughout). Jayalalithaa is more circumspect, but no
less authoritarian. As, indeed, was Narendra Modi as Chief Minister of
Gujarat. In all these cases, the Cabinet was reduced to a naught.

One must not hastily and unfairly jump to the conclusion that as Prime
Minister, Narendra Modi will replicate his much vaunted “Gujarat model” in
New Delhi. But some recent administrative measures which he has taken, at
the very outset, and within days of taking the oath of office on May 26,
should arouse concern. They have serious constitutional and political
implications and acquire a graver aspect when viewed in the context of the
political ambience that he, his backers in the party, in the media,
including some recent and voluble converts, and in business and industry,
have sedulously fostered. This is what Professor Anthony King calls
“theatre of celebrity” in his thought-provoking work*The British
Constitution* (Oxford University Press; 2007; page 319). Partymen believe
that they owe their seats in Parliament and Cabinet to the celebrity
vote-getter and the celebrity, aided by his coterie, encourages them in
this belief.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were artists in this. The party was in
thrall. The Cabinet had lost its voice. Robin Cook told the scholar Peter
Hennessy that by the time of the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, “most in
the Cabinet had lost the habit of dissent”. Prime Minister David Cameron
told the Conservative Party Conference in October 2006: “I will restore the
proper process of government…. I want to be Prime Minister of this country.
Not a President” (Peter Hennessy; “From Blair to Brown: The Condition of
British Government”; *The Political Quarterly*; Volume 78; No. 3,
July-September 2007; pages 344-351).

When in 1963 Richard Crossman argued in his introduction to the third
edition of Walter Bagehot’s classic *The English Constitution* that Cabinet
government had been transformed into “Prime Ministerial Government”, he
invited a stinging rebuke from the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson. No
Prime Minister is more powerful than a couple of Ministers resolved to
check him. Thatcher was sent packing after a Cabinet revolt. It is the
state of politics which governs the relationship between the Prime Minister
and the Cabinet.

*That* is the worrisome aspect. Narendra Modi has reduced his party, the
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to serve as his praetorian guard. Its
president, Rajnath Singh, is his Home Minister. Seniors such as L.K. Advani
and Murli Manohar Joshi were ousted from power because their shelf life—75
years, which he had arbitrarily and *uniquely *prescribed—had expired.
Advani was denied speakership of the Lok Sabha because he could not be
trusted; rightly so, in view of his record in betrayal. The Rashtriya
Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) is happy that its pracharak is Prime Minister. Most
of the media eat out of his hands. Modi is a man with a will for power and
a contempt for public opinion so long as his party backs him up.

Contrary to the common impression in the public mind, he has *not* begun
well at all. He appointed as Minister in his government Sanjeev Baliyan,
Member of Parliament from Muzaffarnagar, who is accused of a role in last
year’s riots. “A senior police officer said Baliyan was charged with
inciting mobs and making provocative speeches in the run-up to the riots in
late August and early September last year. Baliyan had taken anticipatory
bail from the High Court. ‘Narendra Modi called my brother at 8-30 a.m.
today [May 26] and asked him to rush to Gujarat Bhavan immediately’,” his
brother Vivek told *The Telegraph* (May 27, 2014). G.L. Singhal, the police
officer who was suspended after his arrest in February 2013 in the Ishrat
Jahan case and was on bail, was reinstated by the Gujarat government
shortly after Modi became Prime Minister. This is what is called
majoritarian democracy. Neither Indira Gandhi nor Rajiv Gandhi had such an

*It is in this political context that the administrative measures must be
viewed, singly and collectively.*

*1. On May 27, Modi identified “all important policy issues as a portfolio
subject within his remit in the allocation of Cabinet responsibilities,
lending to his office powers across Ministries to control and direct
crucial policy matters.*

*“The intention, sources said, is to focus policymaking in the PMO [Prime
Minister’s Office] and ensure that all Ministries obtain approvals at the
initial stages rather than start consultations by moving Cabinet notes or
issue policy guidelines without prior consent. In Gujarat, sources said,
such a system had helped bring about predictability and uniformity in
policy, particularly in the industry sector. To those familiar with Modi’s
governance style, this is the first step towards exercising control over
Ministers and creating the official basis for getting senior officials
across Ministries to brief him directly on what he may define as an
important policy issue” (Pranab Dhal Samanta, Indian Express; May 28). This
was the first step towards clipping the Ministers’ wings and boosting their
civil servants’ role and, of course, enhancing his own power.*

*2. On May 31, the Prime Minister issued orders abolishing all Groups of
Ministers (GOMs) and Empowered Groups of Ministers (EGOMs) set up during
the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. The new National Democratic
Alliance (NDA) government inherited 21 GOMs and nine EGOMs from the last
regime. But, the end of the GOM system comes with a rider. Now, the PMO and
the Cabinet Secretary will act as facilitators as and when needed by any
Ministry. On June 19, all four Standing Committees of the Cabinet were
discontinued, while some crucial Cabinet Committees were to be
reconstituted, as part of the process of trimming. This is an ambiguous
process. Not so ambiguous are some other steps, especially the one taken
four days later.*

*3. On June 4, Prime Minister Modi met around 50 Secretaries to the
Government of India. The Telegraph reported on June 5: “From the driblets
of information seeping through, it is learnt that the Prime Minister’s
message was that in case of a ‘conflict’ between the top bureaucrat of
Ministry and the Minister the official reported to, the matter should be
brought to Modi’s notice immediately for a ‘resolution’. …the official
statement said Modi would be accessible to all the ‘officers’ and added
that he encouraged them to approach him with their inputs and ideas. It
said the Prime Minister ‘empathised’ with the officials when they said they
were not being able to ‘realise their true potential because of
circumstances’.” Hindustan Times reported (June 5): “‘You can meet me at
any time. You can contact me on email or ring me up,’ Modi said while
wrapping up the meeting.” Have you ever heard of any Prime Minister
in any democracy in the world speak in these terms? It reflects a profound
ignorance of the rules and an arrogant sense of self-importance.*

*Read together, these measures spell (a) aggrandisement of the Prime
Minister’s power and authority; (b) diminution of Ministers’ powers and
authority and with them a loss of prestige and morale; (c) the civil
servants’ loss of respect for their Ministers; and (d) altogether, a
subversion of the Cabinet system adopted by the framers of our
Constitution. What we are being treated to is not even Crossman’s prime
ministerial government but a presidential government under the cloak of a
Cabinet system. Even after Patel’s death, Nehru had powerful Ministers such
as C. Rajagopalachari, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, later G.B. Pant and Morarji
Desai. Lal Bahadur Shastri, V.P. Singh, Dewe Gowda, I.K. Gujral and
Manmohan Singh had powerful Ministers. So, remember, had Atal Bihari
Vajpayee. Modi has “yes-men” —“Beni Oui, Ouis” as the French call them.
Authorities on constitutional law have pronounced strongly against such

*This is what the great authority Ivor Jennings 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. It is not enough to collect a dozen gentlemen in a room, place an
agenda before them, and tell them that their salaries depend on their
reaching agreement…. The Ministers are concerned withpolicy and not with
administration. …The Minister is responsible for what goes on in his
Ministry, but he is responsible to and acts on behalf of the Cabinet.
Collective responsibility means not only that the Cabinet is collectively
responsible for its decisions, but also that it is collectively responsible
for ministerial decisions. There are, of course, limits to this
responsibility, for the Minister, unlike the official, is not anonymous. On
the contrary, he makes all the announcements of government policy relating
to his own Department, whether they relate to his decisions or to Cabinet
decisions. There are limits because the Minister must be personally
responsible for inefficiency or corruption, whether on his own account or
on his Department’s account” (The Hindu’s Republic Day Supplement, January
26, 1950, which it wisely reprinted on August 15, 2007). Ministers have a
right to determine policy. They have done so for years; subject, of course,
to the Cabinet’s veto and the Prime Minister’s veto if he disagrees. On
major issues of policy the Prime Minister and the Cabinet decide, the
Minister voicing his views.*

*In May 1992, British Prime Minister John Major published a hitherto secret
manual by the Cabinet Office, a copy of which the Cabinet Secretary gives
to every new Minister. It was entitled Questions of Procedure for
Ministers and was later renamed Ministerial Code: A Code of Conduct and
Guidance on Procedures for Ministers. There also exists a Civil Service
Code. Paragraph 1, effective from November 1996, says: “Ministers are
accountable to Parliament for the policies, decisions, and actions
of their departments and agencies.” They are also responsible for what
civil servants do in the course of their duties. All this would be rendered
meaningless if the Prime Minister alone were to decide policy and reaches
out to Secretaries over the heads of their immediate superiors, the

*In Mainstream of May 18, 1985, its editor Nikhil Chakravarty published a
Note by the famous British Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong, dated
February 25, 1985, with a pointed editorial comment on its relevance to
India. This Note is regarded as authoritative by authorities on the
Constitution. It said: “The duty of the individual civil servant is first
and foremost to the Minister of the Crown who is in charge of the
Department in which he or she is serving. It is the Minister who is
responsible, and answerable in Parliament, for the conduct of the
Department’s affairs and the management of its business. It is the duty of
civil servants to serve their Ministers with integrity and to the best of
their ability…. The determination of policy is the responsibility of the
Minister (within the convention of collective responsibility of the whole
government for the decisions and actions of every member of it). In the
determination of policy the civil servant has no constitutional
responsibility or role, distinct from that of the Minister” (paragraphs 3
and 5).*

*L.P. Singh, who served as Union Home Secretary and Governor, was a highly
respected civil servant. He uttered a warning which is relevant now, 27
years later. “If the Prime Minister has been dealing directly with the
Secretaries, inquisitorially or otherwise, it is violative of the principle
and practice of Cabinet governments. The Secretaries should be accountable
primarily to their Ministers and only through them to the Prime Minister”
(Indian Express; January 30, 1987).*

*Cabinet Committees are an integral part of the Cabinet system and buttress
its collegial spirit. Delays can be and must be curbed but you do not throw
away the baby with the bath water. “Much of the work on government policy
that was formerly the business of the Cabinet is now carried out in Cabinet
Committees (Ministerial committees of the Cabinet). Such committees have
existed since the early nineteenth century, but a fully organised committee
system became established as a normal part of Cabinet government only after
the Second World War. Cabinet Committees deal with matters of continuing
governmental concern such as economic policy, home and social affairs,
defence and overseas policy, local government and the environment, and a
new administration may retain much of the previous government’s Standing
Committee structure. Ad hoc committees are appointed to deal with specific
and immediate issues of policy and are wound up when the work entrusted to.


Read mor ehere –