The most distinctive characteristic of a Cabinet system of government is the complete and continuous responsibility of the executive to the legislature. The Cabinet is composed of the Prime Minister, who is the chief of the executive, and his senior colleagues who share the responsibility with him for the formulation and execution of the policies of the government.
In contrast to a system of checks and balances as obtain under the Presidential system of government in the United States, the Cabinet system embodies the principle of concentrated authority under strict control.
The Cabinet is the central shaft to which all the other agencies of government are geared. Individual members of the Cabinet are the heads of the different departments of the administration.
Collectively, the Cabinet shapes the programme of legislation which is submitted to Parliament and from it emanates the broad and general policies. The Parliament also checks and controls the performance of the administration.
Thus, the Cabinet system facilitates, on the one hand, the intimate co-operation between the executive and the legislature and, on the other, ensures the responsibility of the executive to the legislature, the representative of the people.
Under the Cabinet system, the Head of the State occupies a position of great dignity, but practically all authority, nominally vested in him, is exercised by the Cabinet or the Ministry which assumes full responsibility for acts performed in his name.
The unity and collective responsibility of the Cabinet are achieved through the Prime Minister, who is the key-stone of the Cabinet arch. His colleagues in the Cabinet are appointed on his recommendation and they always go out of office along with him. He is thus central both to the formation and the dissolution of the Cabinet.
The real merit of a Cabinet system is that the executive being responsible to the legislature is always being watched. The moment it proves unequal to the task, or it goes off the track or flouts the will of the legislature, it can be removed from office by a successful vote of no-confidence.
Under the modem party system, if the party in office has a stable majority in the legislature, the Cabinet may wield overwhelming power, so long as the members of the party are solidly behind it.
Under such conditions, as Herman Finer put it, the Cabinet although creature of Parliament becomes a creature which leads its creator. But under different conditions, Parliament will assert and no Cabinet will be able to dominate.
If instability of Cabinet does not become chronic as was the case under the Fourth Republic of France, a Parliamentary executive is preferable to a Presidential executive whose main merit is the stability of the executive for a fixed period.
The Constitution of India has adopted as a basic principle the British Cabinet system almost in its entirety. The only special feature of the Indian Constitution which deserves special mention in this context is the position of the Prime Minister.
The Constitution expressly gives him a distinctly superior position by making him the head of the Council of Ministers. In Britain, although in practice the Prime Minister holds a superior position, he is, at least in theory, described as first among equals.
In India, the Cabinet system of government under the Constitution is established not only at the Central level, but also in the States. In every State there is a Council of Ministers headed by a Chief Minister, just like the Prime Minister who heads the Central Cabinet.