Political System: Cabinet

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Political System: Cabinet

Parliamentary democracies, including India, are more accurately described as cabinet governments. While the council of ministers has constitutional status in India, the cabinet does not get a mention in India's Constitution. Its powers are defined instead by convention and usage. The council of ministers consists, in order of precedence, of: cabinet ministers; ministers of state; deputy ministers; and parliamentary secretaries.

The full executive is the council of ministers, with the cabinet being but one of its four components. In reality, though, the cabinet is much more important, influential, and powerful than the full council. While the latter meets rarely, the cabinet meets frequently. In some respects, ministers of state and deputy ministers are closer to being departmental heads than cabinet ministers. With coalition governments and the resulting need to accommodate various political parties, their numbers have increased dramatically. In November 2003, there were 29 cabinet ministers (of whom 2 were women) in addition to the prime minister and deputy prime minister, and 49 ministers of state (5 women). Every minister must be a member of parliament (MP) of either the lower house (Lok Sabha) or upper house (Rajya Sabha). If this is not the case upon appointment to the cabinet, he or she must become an MP within six months of appointment, either through nomination or by election. A minister may take part in the proceedings of either house of parliament, but voting rights are restricted to the house to which he or she belongs.

The cabinet of India serves three principal functions: to determine government policy for presentation to Parliament; to implement government policy; and to carry out interdepartmental coordination and cooperation. Interestingly, the cabinet as a whole does not consider the budget, the responsibility for which rests with the finance minister, the prime minister, and one or more other related ministers.

What is the power and influence of the cabinet collectively, or of cabinet ministers individually? The answer depends not only on the personality of the prime minister of the day—whether he or she is assertive and domineering or more of the delegating type—but also on how powerful and independent-minded the cabinet ministers themselves are. On the one hand, they are rival centers of political gravity within the ruling party, and therefore a potential threat to the continuing position of the prime minister as head of government. On the other hand, they are of immense help to the prime minister in articulating and defending government policy in Parliament and in the nation at large, to both party faithful and political opponents alike. And the knowledge that the government is not a one-person band can be greatly reassuring to the people and to business and investor confidence. In the 1998–2003 period, when Lal Krishna Advani served as deputy prime minister and home minister, the Vajpayee government had one of the most powerful deputy prime ministers in decades of Indian politics. For all his commanding stature in the country, even Jawaharlal Nehru (prime minister 1947–1964) had to contend with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who was second only to Nehru in influence in the cabinet and the party. Patel was considered to be Nehru's equal in many respects.

In contrast to her father, Indira Gandhi (prime minister 1966–1977, 1980–1984) established a more personalized and centralized form of prime ministerial government. Efforts by the Janata government (1977–1980) to restore the principle and substance of collective responsibility fell victim to internecine conflict within the cabinet. Prime Minister Gandhi's dominant role in her cabinet was reflected in the expanded size and enhanced status of the prime minister's secretariat, compared to that of the far more humble Lal Bahadur Shastri (prime minister 1964–1966).

"Responsible government" ensures that the head of state acts only on the advice of responsible advisers. As in other parliamentary governments, the Indian cabinet operates on the basis of the two further working principles: "cabinet responsibility" and "ministerial responsibility." While cabinet responsibility places individual ministers under the cabinet as a collective entity, ministerial responsibility puts them in charge of government departments. Thus the former is more political and the latter more bureaucratic in nature.

All cabinet ministers must accept the principle of collective responsibility. That is, under collective leadership each minister accepts and agrees to share responsibility for all decisions of the cabinet. Doubts and disagreements may be expressed either diplomatically or forcefully, but they must be confined to the privacy of the cabinet room. Cabinet decisions are rarely taken by formal vote. Instead, the cabinet proceeds by a sense of the meeting after the discussion has taken place. If any member of the cabinet is unable to support government policy in public, in Parliament, or in the country at large, then that member is morally bound to resign. Foreign Minister M. C. Chagla resigned from the cabinet in 1967 because he believed that the government's educational policy, which obviously did not fall within his ministerial jurisdiction, was likely to endanger and undermine national unity. A dissenting minister may neither vote against government policy in Parliament, nor speak against it in public. Minister of State Mohan Dharia was dismissed from the council of ministers in 1975 because of public dissent from government policy on how to handle Loknayak (People's Leader) Jaya Prakash Narayan's people's movement. Open bickering between members of the Janata government on matters of public policy proved to be the prelude to the collapse of the government in 1979. For more than two years the Janata cabinet was less a forum for reaching collective decisions than an arena for factional conflict. During 1998–2003, the problems for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–led government came from coalition allies rather than BJP members. But the numerical dominance of the BJP and the personal popularity of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sufficed to overcome any dissidence within the coalition.

Each member of the cabinet accepts full political responsibility for all acts of commission and omission by officials of the department that falls under her or his portfolio. Officials are there to advise the minister and implement the minister's decisions. The minister, rather than her or his officials, reaps the rewards of the ministry's policy successes, and has to be prepared to pay the political price for its failures. Thus Defence Minister V. K. Krishna Menon was forced to resign by Prime Minister Nehru after the disastrous performance of the Indian military in the war with China in 1962. Serious railway accidents have led to calls for the resignation of railway ministers. When Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh accompanied alleged terrorists whose release from Indian detention was demanded by the hijackers of an Indian Airlines plane that had been taken to Afghanistan in 1999, the shame and ignominy was not transferred to the shoulders of his civil servants and advisers.

Ministerial responsibility is the doctrinal assertion of the supremacy of politicians over the entire machinery of government. Cabinet ministers accept responsibility for departmental acts because in the system of cabinet government they are expected and required to exercise firm control over the bureaucracy. One reason why Prime Minister Nehru did not abandon the bureaucratic structure inherited from the British colonial administration was that he and his ministers provided crisp and clear policy guidance to their civil servants. Furthermore, they also asserted and established the supremacy of political control over the military.

The cabinet is assisted in its many tasks by several committees. The most important of these deal with parliamentary, political, foreign, defense, and economic affairs. The key cabinet committees are always dominated by the senior ministers, starting with the prime minister. Important issues are usually examined in committee before being taken to the cabinet as a whole for debate and approval or rejection. The committee system can be used by a prime minister or an "inner cabinet" (sometimes referred to as the "kitchen cabinet") to preempt decisions, using the full cabinet chiefly for ratification of the policy already agreed to by a powerful small clique.

In principle, nevertheless, the cabinet is the chief governing authority in the country. Its central role in government also makes it the focus of most interest group activity and lobbying, which in turn makes it one of the chief mediators and conciliators of sectarian and sectoral interests. It is the cabinet that tenders advice to the president for the exercise of all his or her functions, and that provides legislative leadership in Parliament, political leadership in the country, and administrative leadership of government departments. The cabinet is also the final arbiter of India's external relations, from declaration of general principles of foreign policy to decisions of war and peace and negotiations of trade agreements and military alliances. In 2003, for example, India was urged by the second Bush administration in Washington to contribute a division of troops (over 15,000) to Iraq. There was a split within the government ranks on how to respond, taking into consideration the government's wish to consolidate relations with the United States against the backdrop of the dominant public sentiment against the U.S. war. Some ministers wanted to agree to the U.S. request; others were initially sympathetic but changed their minds; and some stayed opposed from start to finish. In the crucial meeting of the cabinet committee on security on 14 July 2003, Prime Minister Vajpayee sided with the opponents, and the matter was thus settled. The cabinet committee on security was the crucial body in which the decision was made.

Ramesh Thakur

See alsoFederalism and Center-State Relations


Brady, Chris. "Collective Responsibility of the Cabinet: An Ethical, Constitutional or Managerial Tool?" Parliamentary Affairs 52, no. 2 (April 1999): 214–229.

Burch, Martin, and Ian Holliday. "Prime Minister's and Cabinet Offices: An Executive Office in All but Name." Parliamentary Affairs 52:1 (January 1999): 32–45.

Limaye, Madhu. Cabinet Government in India. New Delhi: Radiant Publishers, 1989.

Panandikar, V. A. Pai, and Ajay K. Mehra. The Indian Cabinet. Delhi: Konark, 1996.

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