There is some confusion as a result of the indiscriminate use of the terms “Cabinet” and “Council of Ministers” in connection with the activities of the Government. Often they are used as interchangeable terms. But in fact, they are not.
The Council of Ministers, or the Ministry as it is usually called, consists of all the different categories of Ministers of the Government of India. At present, there are three such categories, namely, Cabinet Ministers, Ministers of State and Deputy Ministers.
Of these, the Cabinet Ministers by themselves form a separate body called the Cabinet which, in fact, is the nucleus of the Council of Ministers. There is not a word mentioned about the Cabinet in the Constitution which, as we have already seen, speaks only of the Council of Ministers.
Yet, today, the functions of the Cabinet, for all practical purposes, are identified with those assigned to the Council under the Constitution.
The Cabinet provides the best example of conventions so far established under the Constitution. No doubt, the organisation and working of the British Cabinet have provided the example. Yet, the Indian Cabinet is not a carbon copy of the British original, for it has developed its own special features.
At the time when power was transferred to Indians in 1947, there was no such institution as a Cabinet in India. What existed then as a comparable body at the highest level in the “Government was the Governor-General’s Executive Council.
But with the establishment of responsible government on August 15, 1947, the Executive Council was transformed into a Ministry responsible to Parliament. The two significant results of this transformation were the recognition of the principle of collective responsibility and the acceptance of the Prime Minister as the leader and head of the Ministry.
The term “Cabinet” was used thereafter as an alternative to “Ministry”, so much so that for some time these two terms were in use as synonymous to each other.
All members of the Ministry or the Cabinet except the Prime Minister had the same status. But the situation soon underwent a change on account he appointment of junior Ministers to the Council of Ministers.
Accordingly a three-tier ministerial hierarchy was established, with the Cabinet Ministers at the top, Ministers of State in the middle and Deputy Ministers in the lowest rung of the ladder. A clear distinction was drawn between Ministers who were members of the Cabinet and others.
The Cabinet was composed of the senior most Ministers who were not mere departmental chiefs but whose responsibilities transcended departmental boundaries into the entire field of the administration. It was, naturally, a smaller body and the most powerful body in the Government.
Thus, the growth of the Cabinet as a separate body from the Council of Ministers was only a natural product of the application of the administrative theory of organisation. Soon, the Cabinet became not only a distinct entity, different from the Council of Ministers, but also an institution with its own detailed organisation.
In the process, it has also taken over functions assigned by the Constitution to the Council. For instance, the constitutional responsibility of advising the President is the Council’s. But this function today is exercised exclusively by the Cabinet.