Given to errors'

Published : Aug 26, 2011 00:00 IST

The key to collective responsibility' is the Prime Minister's right to choose and dismiss his Ministers, which Manmohan Singh did not have.

TO facilitate the framing of the Constitution of India, Constitutional Adviser B.N. Rau issued to members of the Constituent Assembly, in March 1947, a questionnaire in order to ascertain their views on the salient features of a constitution. Later, the questionnaire was circulated to members of the State legislatures also. The first question was on the role and powers of the head of the Indian Union. The next was about the nature of the executive, whether it should be the British type (parliamentary) or the American type (non-parliamentary/presidential), or the Swiss type (mixed) or any other type. A note explained briefly the main features and practices of these three systems of governance.

The replies from the members were overwhelmingly in favour of the British system. K.M. Munshi explained that during the last one hundred years, Indian public life has largely drawn upon the traditions of the British constitutional law. Most of us, and during the last several generations before us, public men in India, have looked up to the British model as the best ( Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. VII, pages 984-5).

The Union Constitution Committee, headed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and comprising many stalwarts as members, at its meetings on June 8 and 9, 1947, decided unanimously in favour of the parliamentary system in which the President would have no special power and would exercise all his functions on the advice of the Council of Ministers.

Introducing the Draft Constitution in the Assembly on November 4, 1948, B.R. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee, put it in a nutshell: The American and the Swiss systems give more stability but less responsibility. The British system on the other hand gives you more responsibility.

It was against this background that the Constituent Assembly decided to have the Cabinet government accountable to the elected House of Parliament.

When the draft provision 61 (later to become Article 74) about the Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President in the exercise of his functions came up for discussion in the Assembly, Ambedkar pointed out the important role and the responsibility of the Prime Minister:

All members of the House are very keen that the Cabinet should work on the basis of collective responsibility and all agree that is a very sound principle. But I do not know how many members of the House realise what exactly is the machinery by which collective responsibility is enforced. Obviously, there cannot be a statutory remedy. Supposing a Minister differed from other members of the Cabinet and gave expression to his views which were opposed to the views of the Cabinet, it would be hardly possible for the law to come in and to prosecute him for having committed a breach of what might be called collective responsibility. Obviously, there cannot be a legal sanction for collective responsibility. The only sanction through which collective responsibility can be enforced is through the Prime Minister.

In my judgment collective responsibility is enforced by the enforcement of two principles. One principle is that no person shall be nominated to the Cabinet except on the advice of the Prime Minister. Secondly, no person shall be retained as a member of the Cabinet if the Prime Minister says that he shall be dismissed. It is only when members of the Cabinet both in the matter of their appointment as well as in the matter of their dismissal are placed under the Prime Minister, that it would be possible to realise our ideal of collective responsibility. I do not see any other means or any other way of giving effect to that principle.

Ambedkar analysed a situation where the Prime Minister failed to be effective in the matter of appointment and dismissal of discredited persons: Supposing you have no Prime Minister, what would really happen? What would happen is this, that every Minister will be subject to the control or influence of the President. It would be perfectly possible for the President who is no ad idem with a particular Cabinet, to deal with each Minister separately, singly, influence them and thereby cause disruption in the Cabinet. Such a thing is not impossible to imagine. Before collective responsibility was introduced in the British Parliament, you remember how the English King used to disrupt the British Cabinet. He had what was called a Party of King's Friends both in the Cabinet as well as in Parliament. That sort of thing was put a stop to by collective responsibility. As I said, collective responsibility can be achieved only through the instrumentality of the Prime Minister. Therefore, the Prime Minister is really the keystone of the arch of the Cabinet and unless and until we create that office and endow that office with statutory authority to nominate and dismiss Ministers, there can be no collective responsibility.

Prof. K.T. Shah had moved several amendments, one of which demanded that no one should be appointed Minister or Parliamentary Secretary who had been convicted of serious offences involving moral turpitude, bribery or corruption liable for rigorous punishment of two years in jail. To this amendment Ambedkar replied:

His last proposition is that no person who is convicted may be appointed a Minister of the state. Well, so far as his intention is concerned, it is no doubt very laudable and I do not think any member of this House would like to differ from him on that proposition. But the whole question is this: whether we should introduce all these qualifications and disqualifications in the Constitution itself. Is it not desirable; is it not sufficient that we should trust the Prime Minister, the Legislature and the public at large watching the actions of the Ministers and the actions of the legislature to see that no such infamous thing is done by either of them? I think this is a case which may eminently be left to the good sense of the Prime Minister and to the good sense of the Legislature with the general public holding a watching brief upon them. I therefore say that these amendments are unnecessary ( Constituent Assembly Debates, December 30, 1948).

British system

In this regard, Ambedkar referred to the situation in England before the introduction of the Cabinet government and its collective responsibility. As is well-known, the British government is based upon an unwritten' Constitution, meaning that there is no codified single document called Constitution'. The British Constitution is based on many treaties, bills, conventions, practices, resolutions and rules, adopted over several centuries.

After passing the tortuous period of the divine rights of the Stewart Kings, the Civil War, the Protectorate rule of Oliver Cromwell, Parliament accepted the William and Mary joint constitutional monarchy. By that time the Commons, having grown strong in power over the traditional claims and authority of the kings, enacted legislative measures such as the Bill of Rights (1689), the Mutiny Bill (1689), the Triennial Bill (1694), the Treason Act (1696) and the Act of Settlement (1701), statutorily confirming the transfer of power from the monarch to the Commons for controlling the financial and legislative measures of the government.

Even though at that time the Crown had the power to appoint Ministers, sometimes a few Ministers were appointed by the King. They were known as Treasury Ministers and sat to the right of the Speaker in Parliament. The reservation later became the Treasury Benches'. These members always met secretly to find ways and means to get the grants to the King without exposing themselves to the displeasure of the majority members in the House.

The term Cabinet' comes from the Latin word gabinetto, meaning secret receptacle'. Often, the monarch had to go to Parliament for money, and in course of time preferred to rely on the group or a party of members who could command the majority in the House. Thus developed the concept of Cabinet government, which had the support of the majority of the House and was collectively responsible to the House. In 1713, the House resolved that the Commons would not vote any sum of money for any purpose except on a motion of a Minister.

First Lord of the Treasury

Though the word Cabinet' appeared in the Revolutionary Settlement Acts, there was no reference to the post of Prime Minister' for a long time in any Act or official notification. Previously, the monarch presided over Cabinet meetings and often became the real ruler of the government. When Queen Anne died in 1714 without an heir to the throne, under the Act of Settlement her distant cousin, George Louis of Hanover (Germany), became King George I.

George I attended, at first, a few of the Cabinet meetings, but withdrew as he could not speak English. He appointed, in October 1715, Robert Walpole as the First Lord of the Treasury, who, after the death of George I in 1727, continued to serve under George II until his resignation in 1742. As First Lord of Treasury, Walpole assumed leadership of Cabinet proceedings. But he refused to be called as the First Minister' or Premier' and insisted that he was the First Servant of the King'. When he was to occupy the official residence at 10 Downing Street, he preferred to put the name plate First Lord of Treasury'. The conservative culture of British tradition still keeps the same brass plate even though it is known as the official residence of the Prime Minister.

In his book The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot wrote: The Queen is only at the head of the dignified part of the Constitution. The Prime Minister is at the head of the efficient part. The Crown is, according to the saying, the fountain of honour'; but the Treasury is the spring' of business.

Since 1721, every head of the British government has been the First Lord of the Treasury, excepting in the cases of William Pitt the Elder (1768-70) and Marquis of Salisbury (1885-86), who are included in the list of British Prime Ministers.

Only in 1905 there was an official recognition of the Prime Minister in the order of precedence, next to the Archbishop of York. Statutory mention was made of Prime Minister in the 1917 Act of Parliament for acceptance of the gift by Sir Arthur and Lady Lee, of their Chequers Estate for use as a country home for the Prime Minister.

Specific legal recognition was given in the Ministers of the Crown Act, 1937, providing salary to the position of Prime Minister. At present, in the order of precedence in the U.K. the Prime Minister ranks fourth after the Sovereign, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Lord Chancellor.

The historical development of the British Constitution shows that the concept and the status of the Cabinet had been prevalent by law and usage for more than three centuries, long before the recognition of Prime Minister by law in 1937.

Ambedkar earnestly insisted that unless and until the appointment and dismissal of a Minister are placed under the Prime Minister there can be no collective responsibility.

The Raja case

Regarding the induction of A. Raja as Telecom Minister in 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conceded that it was the choice of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which was a part of the ruling coalition. Again, a day before the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on the issue of licences and allocation of 2G spectrum by the Department of Telecommunications was to be placed in Parliament on November 16, 2010, Raja submitted his resignation on the instructions of DMK president M. Karunanidhi. The Prime Minister had no say either in his appointment or in his resignation.

Hence, the two principles considered essential for a Prime Minister, of appointment and dismissal of a Minister, have been lost in the case of Manmohan Singh.

He also spoke of coalition dharma which intervened in his functioning as Prime Minister. Analysing the affidavits submitted by candidates in the 2009 general elections, National Election Watch, a nationwide campaign of more than 1,200 non-governmental and citizen-led organisations on electoral reforms, improving democracy and governance, had revealed that some of the Cabinet Ministers belonging to the Congress party had criminal records and one had a serious record. The selection of Ministers came after the election and its results. At least in the case of his own party members, coalition dharma would not have prevented Manmohan Singh from keeping himself and his party clean.

Whenever any inconvenient question is put to the Prime Minister, whether it is about the 3G scam in his own Department of Space or about the first-come-first-served criterion in the 2G scam of the Communications Ministry, the astounding reply from him is: I am not aware. Ignorance of the law does not absolve a common man of his illegal action, and unawareness' of the Prime Minister about important actions of the government can only mean irreparable disaster for the nation.

Even as the Finance Minister in the 1990s, Manmohan Singh had been caught in the web of blissful unawareness'. When, in 1991-92, the stock market registered abnormal spurts in share prices and there were severe irregularities and fraudulent transactions involving banks, a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) was formed with 20 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha, with Ram Niwas Mirdha as its chairman. The committee took information and evidence from several Ministers/former Ministers, including Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.

Why lose sleep?

While furnishing replies to several questions in Parliament, the Finance Minister stated that the shares had shown a rising tendency due to market factors, including the recent liberalised policy (Lok Sabha, March 27, 1992).

To a call attention motion in the Lok Sabha on April 30, 1992, the Finance Minister stated: But that does not mean that I should lose my sleep simply because stock market goes up one day and falls next day. Though the Finance Minister might have spoken in a lighter vein, the committee in its report submitted in December 1993 referred to this in a serious accent: It is good to have a Finance Minister who does not lose his sleep easily, but one would wish that when such cataclysmic changes take place all around, some alarm would ring to disturb his slumber (paragraph 16.15; emphasis given in the report, throughout).

The JPC noted that all the non-official Directors then on the board of the Reserve Bank of India, had been continuing well beyond their normal term of four years. When queried about this, the Finance Minister said: You cannot blame me for the present Board because I have not appointed that.

Again, when told that government-nominee Directors attended only 15 of the 49 board meetings, he admitted: I have seen the record. I also feel that we should have been present more in the meetings. There is no doubt about it.

The JPC report stated: The committee find it difficult to appreciate this obscure, self-condemnatory evasion. Considering that the government nominees have participated in less than a third of the meetings held since 1986, it is difficult to establish as to what they have actually contributed towards achieving the purpose of their appointment. The committee also note with regret that the irregularities in securities transactions brought out in the Annual Financial Reviews of individual banks or the Annual Reviews of select foreign banks of 1990 and 1991, which had adversely commented on the performance of these banks, did not even engage the attention of either the Central Board or the government nominees on it who after all are there to ensure adherence to policy and guidelines of the government. The committee holds this as one of the contributory factors for the scam (paragraph 16.21).

Ministerial responsibility

About the ministerial responsibility of the Finance Minister, the 1993 JPC report stated in the following paragraphs:

16.62 The FM [Finance Minister] has raised a point to which the committee feel that it should react. In his written submission the Minister has stated: As regards the functions of the FM, he oversees the work of the Ministry and provides overall policy guidance to the officials. Revenue and Expenditure decisions are the direct responsibility of the Finance Ministry. As such FM has more direct responsibility in these areas. He is also responsible for broad policy decisions affecting the financial system where the Finance Ministry is involved. However FM cannot be held responsible for administrative failures or management deficiencies in the case of individual banks and other financial institutions.

The committee feel that such a distinction cannot be sustained by the constitutional jurisprudence under which the parliamentary system works.

16.63 The principle of constructive ministerial responsibility is equally applicable to other departments and ministries where acts of omission and commission have taken place in the discharge of function and duties at different levels.

16.64 The Finance Minister in reply to the general discussion on the Budget 1991-92 on 6 August 1991 stated inter alia : Our strategy has been two-fold. First to release the entrepreneurial spirit and animal energy of our businessmen, industrialists and entrepreneurs to create wealth.' The predatory instinct inherent in a system of free enterprise does release the entrepreneurial spirit and animal energy. But to make the process of liberalisation a success it is necessary to have strategic checks and effective implementation of regulations. While the mood of the government is upbeat on liberalisation, their orientation towards strict enforcement has yet to manifest itself. Deregulation without effective check and balance would be an unmitigated disaster.

Thus the 1993 JPC report under the chairmanship of Ram Niwas Mirdha, veteran Congress leader who had been a Cabinet Minister for several years, unequivocally stated that Finance Minister Manmohan Singh had failed in his ministerial responsibility and should be held responsible for the several acts of omission and commission of his Ministry and departments.

Three days before the JPC report was submitted to Parliament on December 21, 1993, Manmohan Singh submitted his resignation to the Prime Minister. There was a furious discussion on the report in Parliament, but after the winter session ended Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao made a statement that he was not accepting the Finance Minister's resignation.

To a question from Vir Sanghvi, Editor, Sunday, who interviewed Manmohan Singh in 1996, as to why he gave his resignation to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1993, Manmohan Singh stated: Even though the JPC could not find any way to blame me personally for anything, they held the Finance Ministry responsible. When we came to know about it, we took prompt action. We confiscated the properties of those involved. The CBI was brought in. Despite all this, the JPC found it necessary to blame the Finance Ministry. I felt that as it was a unanimous report, it was my moral duty to tender my resignation even though they could not find one instance to blame me personally.

Manmohan Singh took the stand that he had not been personally responsible for acts of omission or commission in the Ministry or for the failure of others in the government or in the banks under the control of the RBI. He has adopted the same line now that he is personally clean, that he is responsible only for the policy decisions and should not be held responsible for other things not personally attributable to him though done by the officers in the ministries and in the government on the whole.

In 1948, Ambedkar stated: Collective responsibility can be achieved only through the instrumentality of the Prime Minister.

In 1993, Finance Minister Manmohan Singh refused to accept his ministerial responsibility; in 2011 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh refuses to accept the collective responsibility. We have a Cabinet, but we do not have a Prime Minister to uphold its collective responsibility.

In his selection of the Central Vigilance Commissioner, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: It was an error of judgment. Perhaps what needs to be found out is whose error of judgment' it was to make Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister.

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