What is the Actual Position of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet System?



The personality and the outlook of the Prime Minister determine the nature of the authority that he or she is likely to exercise.

We can delineate at least three models of Prime Ministerial leadership in India. The first, typical of the Nehru era, may be called, the 'pluralist premiership'.

It coincided with the one-party dominant phase under the aegis of the Congress both at the federal and state levels. Jawaharlal Nehru was more than primus inter pares although until the death of Vallabhai Patel, Nehru was often questioned on many of his decisions.

After Patel's death in 1950, Nehru did assert his pre-eminence and the Cabinet functioned in conformity with the basic norms of 'Prime Ministerial government'. But Nehru continued to have several political stalwarts from the party in his Cabinet, including Abul Kalam Azad, Govinda Ballabh Pant and later Morarji Desai and they were still allowed to play important political roles.

Nehru's successor, Lai Bahadur Shastri also maintained the status of the Cabinet by not trying to override it, but his position was not pre eminent as that of Nehru. Despite being, Nehru's right hand man for years, Shastri developed his own style of functioning. He was a great believer in consensus. His Cabinet therefore, worked as team of near-equals out of whom consensus had patiently to be constructed, during his tenure the Cabinet functioned more like a collegial body without too many controversies.

The second model of Prime Ministerial power may be called 'neo-patrimonial premiership'. This was exemplified by Indira Gandhi at the height of her power, mainly 1971 to the end of internal Emergency in 1977. During the first phase of her Premiership (till 1969), Mrs. Gandhi had to depend on senior leaders and to accommodate their views on various issues. There was considerable discussion and debate in her Cabinet. With persons like Morarji Desai in her Cabinet, she was not in a position to impose her views on every matter.

The second phase of Mrs. Gandhi's Prime Ministership began in 1969 with the Congress split and continued up to 1975. During this phase, Mrs. Gandhi faced practically no challenge either in the cabinet or in the party. The 1971 general election brought her faction to parliament with overwhelming majority. Indeed the mid-term general elections brought to India, for the first time, the 'Imperial Prime Ministership'. Mrs. Gandhi enlarged the role of Prime Minister's Secretariat. Her firm grip was also evident from her frequent reshuffle of the Cabinet and change in the portfolios of the Ministers.

She firmly justified these changes as Prime Ministerial prerogative. Mrs. Gandhi's reliance on the Kitchen Cabinet' undermined the importance of the Cabinet. With the promulgation of Emergency in June 1975, the third phase of Mrs. Gandhi's premiership began during her first tenure.

It is important to note that the decision to impose internal emergency was taken by the Prime Minister herself and not by the Cabinet. Thus the emergency saw the complete eclipse of the Cabinet system.

Mrs. Gandhi, however, lost the Lok Sabha elections in March 1977 and the Janata Party came to power. The new Cabinet headed by Morarji Desai included many stalwarts of the erstwhile opposition parties, who had come together on the Janata platform.

For the first time since the emergence of Mrs. Gandhi as 'the single leader' and the consequent decline of the Cabinet system, the Cabinet again functioned as a collegial decision-making body.

Despite of that the clash of personalities, over- ambitiousness of some leaders and lack of political homogeneity in the Janata Party caused problems in the functioning of the Cabinet. Collective responsibility of the Cabinet was put to severe test.

After the gap of two and a half years Indira Gandhi restored the pattern of prime ministerial dominance of a weak cabinet after her electoral victory in 1980.

The third model of Prime Ministerial power may be designated as the 'federal' one. The Janata Government and the Rajiv Gandhi government, which, despite the persistence of oligarchies tendencies in the two respective parties, were more amenable to federal pressures than any other preceding governments, presaged it.

Rajiv Gandhi's premiership saw the rise of Imperial Prime Ministership in its fullest form. During his five-year tenure the Cabinet was reshuffled over a dozen times.

The Cabinet was shorn of its real designated role. At time even most crucial decisions were taken outside the cabinet, by his unofficial 'coterie', which changed from time to time.

The electoral mandates in 1989, 1991, 1996 and 1998 failed to produce a clear parliamentary majority for one party and invariably gave rise to minority or coalition governments, often both. Coalitional history at the centre first began when the Congress under Indira Gandhi during 1969-71 was a minority government kept running by the support extended by the Leftists.

In parenthesis, minority and coalition government fall in the same family, the line of demarcation being thin, usually unclear. Coalition means a temporary alliance for some specific purpose. The Morarji Desai (1977 - 79) and V.P. Singh (1989 - 1990) regimes were coalitions the latter being, in addition, a minority government also. In 1979, Charan Singh with nearly 85 MPs formed his minority government with Congress support. Later, in 1989 Chandra Shekhar followed the same example.

The PV. Narasimha Rao Government in 1991 was a minority one, to begin with but by methods of questionable nature converted itself into a majority one, lasting for full five years. It completed its term only with the support of some regional groups.

It was followed by the unsuccessful attempt by the BJP under the leadership of A.B. Vajpayee's 13- day rule at the centre. Soon after that, H.D.Deve Gowda formed coalition Government at the centre with the help of the Left parties and the Congress supporting it from outside. It remained in power for a few months and collapsed after Congress withdrew the support to the Government.

I.K. Gujral, then formed new government with the outside support was also a coalition government. Barely eighteen months after the formation of the UF Government, was the country forced to go to the mid-term elections in 1998.

Again a coalition government led by BJP Prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee was formed with the alliance of 17 parties and four independents. Out of that only Qmarties and three independents joined the government.

But the Government failed to last its full term when one of the coalition partners AIADMK withdrew support to the Government. General elections were held in 1999 and again the National Democratic Alliance government under the leadership of A B Vajpayee was formed at the centre.

The Government is functioning at the centre and recently the government defeated a no-confidence motion moved by the opposition on the floor of the House. The Government under Vajpayee succeeded in providing a stable government at the centre.

The personality of the premier Mr. Vajpayee helped in containing the divisible forces in coalition. It also provided the much needed stability and continuity in governance to the country. The present government is a combination of Prime Ministerial Authority and pragmatic politics.

The government made various compromises to keep the party in power and at the same time took some firm decisions against the allies to keep the standard of politics at acceptable levels.

Coalition government implies consensus politics, a collegiate style of functioning. It can hardly help the government if every individual minister feels free to make improper statements at variance with the stated policy of the government, or to pronounce unilaterally on issues that have yet to be thrashed out in House.

By its very nature coalition politics is subject to contradictory motivational pulls and pressures as the ultimate and expedient goals of parties do not merely coexist in the constitutional framework but more often than not, they are juxtaposed against each other.

There are competition and fragmentation/ fractionalizations of coalition situations. A coalition government strives for rational decision-making at least in theory, in the face of incompatibilities among the participants. In fact, durability of coalition would greatly depend upon the degree of accommodation and competition amongst the coalition partners.

Though the Janata Party cabinet led by Morarji Desai was theoretically not a coalition government because the erstwhile opposition parties had merged together in 1977 to form one political party, the Morarji cabinet did function like a political coalition.

Though free discussion was permitted in the Cabinet and the Prime Minister did not hesitate to withdraw his proposal for a unanimous decision. Yet collective responsibility of the cabinet was put to severe test during Janata party rule as most members were unable to forget their previous political identities.

The National Front Government - a minority coalition government also faced problems - administrative and political from within. The internal constraints of a tangled coalition was further demonstrated in the composition and functioning of the UF government.

Both Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral did not have full choice even to choose members from their party. Most members of the council of ministers represented their respective parties. This certainly severely circumscribed the capacity of the Prime Minister to lead the Council of Ministers even as primus inter pares.

It had both negative and positive impact on the functioning of the Council of Ministers. Positively, some of the ministries under able leadership took advantage of the autonomy by default and functioned efficiently, taking bold initiatives.

Ministries of Finance, External Affairs and Industries, to name a few, received accolades for their performance. On the negative side, the Council of Ministers could not function as a cohesive team, for as a leader the Prime Minister could not lead it from the front. Some of the ministers seem to be talking in different voices.

The BJP led coalition government is also working under constant pressure with the support of its pre and post allies. At last, it seems the country is ready for the coalitions and in the future there will be two broad coalitions, one led by the BJP and the other by the Congress. The present UPA (United Progressive Alliance) led by Manmohan Singh is also a coalition government led by the Congress party under the leadership of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. It also has pre and post election allies and is running the government.

Thus the functioning of the cabinet coalition politics would remain a question mark for two reasons:

(1) Because the cabinet as a body is as non-homogenous, if not heterogeneous, as it could be under the circumstances and,

(2) The members of the Cabinet do not owe their position to the Prime Minister.


As the above discussion highlighted, there emerged at least three models of Prime Ministerial leadership in India. (1) 'Pluralism premiership' emerged during the Nehru era, which coincided with the one-party dominance (Congress dominance) both at the federal and state levels (2) 'Neo-patrimonial premiership' exemplified by Indira Gandhi at the height of her power, mainly from 1971 to the end of internal Emergency in 1977.

Unlike the pluralist power structure and internal democracy in the party in the Nehru era, Indira Gandhi's Congress dispensed with organizational elections following the split of 1969 and State Chief Ministers and Pradesh party presidents came to be nominated by the Prime Minister herself. With this unprecedented centralization of powers in the Prime Minister hands, she also gave the call for 'committed' bureaucracy and judiciary.

The Prime Minister's Secretariat (renamed by Morarji Desai later as PMO) was greatly expanded to buttress her enormous powers. (3) The Federal model was presaged by the Janata government (1977-79 - when BJS, BLD, Congress (O) and Socialists merged to form the Janata Party). This model too came to have a fuller denouncement in the post-1989 period, when minority government was being formed with the support of other parties.

In sum, the Indian Union executive has functioned predominantly in the Prime Ministerial mode so far, but with the growing regionalization of the party system, especially since 1989, the Prime Ministers have been required to operate within a political framework with increasingly active federal component. Now, in the present circumstances, pattern of Prime Ministerial dominance of weak cabinets has been replaced by less effective Prime Ministerial leadership of divided cabinets.