What are the important features of the Indian Cabinet System?

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The framers of the Constitution adopted the conventions of British Cabinet government as it had evolved up to that time, including the leading position given to the Prime Minister and the collective responsibility of Cabinet.

On the pattern of the British political system a distinction could be made in India between what was described as the 'formal executive' and the 'real executive'.

While the President and the Vice President constituted the former, the Council of Ministers and the Prime Minister comprised the latter. Walter Bagehot best describes this feature by his celebrated distinction between the 'dignified' (the monarch) and 'efficient' (the Prime Minister and his Cabinet) parts of the Executive. This is similar though not identical with the role of the President and Prime Minister/Cabinet in the Indian political system.

The office of the Prime Minister was non-existent in the interim Government. Nehru, as Vice President led the ministry. Until Independence he no doubt had important powers and did the work of a Prime Minister but he never was the real Prime Minister. Thus, the office of the Prime Minister was borrowed from the British model by the framers of the Constitution.

The Cabinet System as it has evolved in Britain is said to have four basic features.

(a) Political Homogeneity:

Means that the members of the Cabinet must have common political objective and outlook, as well as ideologies and principles. They came from the same political party. In a coalition government they must share collective responsibility and function on a common programme;

(b) Accountability to the Lower House of the Parliament:

The members of the Cabinet are responsible to the Lok Sabha for all their policies and action.

(c) Collective Responsibility of the Ministers for Cabinet Decisions and action taken to implement those decisions.

(d) The Ascendancy of the Prime Minister:

The Prime Minister, who is the leader of the House and the party, has the option to choose members for his Cabinet. The extent to which he can dominate the Cabinet depends largely on his personality and his political acumen the Prime Minister, who initially was regarded as the "primus inter pares!' (First among equals - described by Lord Morley) (Moon among the stars - called by Sir William Vernon) in the Cabinet system, gradually established his ascendancy in the Cabinet. Harold Laski thus called him, 'the pivot of the whole system of the government.' In Nehru's words, 'he is the Lynch-Pin of the Government'.

Article 74(1) of our Constitution expressly states that 'there shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advice the President in the exercise of his functions'. Theoretically, 'the Prime Minister shall be appointed by the President and other Ministers shall be appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister' - Article 75(1).

In reality the President invites the leader of the majority party in Lok Sabha to form the Council of Ministers. As stated earlier the President can exercise some discretion in the selection of the Prime Minister when no party commands a clear majority in Lok Sabha.

In such circumstances the President may request the single largest party to form government (as happened in 1991 and 1998) alternatively he may allow a coalition government (as in 1989 and 1996) be formed. The role of the Prime Minister and the way Council of Ministers work is basically determined by the balance of forces in the ruling party, or parties in case of a coalition government.


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