Essay

Modifying democracy

Print edition : July 11, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Ministers at the swearing-in ceremony of the NDA government at Rashtrapati Bhavan on May 26. Rajnath Singh, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, M. Venkaiah Naidu and Nitin Gadkari on in the front row. Photo: PTI

Modi taking a round in the PMO on May 29. Photo: PTI

Sanjeev Kumar Baliyan takes charge as Minister of State for Agriculture and Food Processing Industries at Krishi Bhavan in New Delhi on May 28. Baliyan is an accused in the 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar. Photo: PTI

G.L. Singhal, the police officer who was suspended over the Ishrat Jahan case, was reinstated shortly after Modi became Prime Minister. Photo: PTI

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

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 conventions.

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 approach.

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 measures.

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 with policy 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 Ministers.

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 them has been completed. At any time there may be about twenty Standing Committees and a variable number of subcommittees and ad hoc committees. Under the Blair administrations there have been ad hoc committees on, for example, food safety, youth justice, animal rights activists and the Olympics.

“The Prime Minister establishes and dissolves Cabinet Committees, appoints the chairman and members and specifies the terms of reference. The Prime Minister ordinarily chairs a number of Cabinet Committees himself” (Colin Turpin and Adam Tomkins; British Government and the Constitution, Cambridge University Press; 2007; pages 400-401). Ivor Jennings held the same view. “The committee system is now an essential part of the Cabinet procedure’’ ( Cabinet Government, page 255).

But all these authorities only elaborate on the rules embodied in the text, the very letter, of the Constitution of India Articles 74, 75 and 78, read thus:

74. Council of Ministers to aid and advise President.—(1) There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President who shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advice:

“Provided that the President may require the Council of Ministers to reconsider such advice, either generally or otherwise, and the President shall act in accordance with the advice, and the President shall act in accordance with the advice tendered after such reconsideration.…” The Council as a body, its head, the Prime Minister alone.

75. Other provisions as to Ministers—(1) The Prime Minister shall be appointed by the President and the other Ministers shall be appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. (2) The Ministers shall hold office during the pleasure of the President. (3) The Council of Ministers shall be collectively responsible to the House of the People.

78. Duties of Prime Minister as respects the furnishing of information to the President, etc.—“It shall be the duty of the Prime Minister—(a) to communicate to the President all decisions of the Council of Ministers relating to the administration of the affairs of the Union and proposals for legislation; (b) to furnish such information relating to the administration of the affairs of the Union and proposals for legislation as the President may call for; and (c) 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.”

To reduce the Council of Ministers and its members, the Ministers, themselves to ciphers is to subvert the Constitution. The trend has been set afoot. The time to stop it is now.

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