The most distinguishing feature of a Parliamentary system of government is the unqualified and continuous responsibility of the Cabinet to Parliament for all its actions. Besides collective responsibility, there is also the individual responsibility of Ministers to Parliament for their actions arising out of their own administrative charges.
Under the Constitution, ministerial responsibility is confined to the House of the People, the Lower House of Parliament. This is in recognition of the popular character of that House which is a directly elected body, whereas the Council of States (the Upper House of Parliament) is indirectly elected.
There are two special features of the Parliamentary government in India which deserve mention in this connection. A person who is not a member of either House of Parliament can be a Minister, Secondly, a Minister whether he is a Member of Parliament or not has the right to attend both Houses and participate in the discussions.
The only restriction placed upon him is that he cannot vote. Similarly, a Minister who is a member of either House has the right to appear in the other House and participate in its proceedings, except for voting.
Although Mrs. Gandhi continued to be a member of the Council of States even after her appointment as Prime Minister in 1966, the established practice of the Prime Minister belonging to the House of the People has become a convention of great merit and, therefore, it is expected to be followed in future also.
Prime Minister Deva Gowda has, however, created a unique precedent. At the time of his appointment as Prime Minister by the President in 1996, he was not a member of either House of Parliament. He became a member of the Rajya Sabha a few months later.
Dr. Man Mohan Singh, when he assumed the office of Prime Minister in 2004 was not a member of the Lok Sabha but that of the Rajya Sabha. Thus the convention that the Prime Minister belongs to the Lok Sabha has not been strictly followed.
There are several methods by which Parliament ensures ministerial responsibility. Questions in Parliament, budget discussions, adjournment motions, discussions on reports by departments, are some of the common and regular devices by which accountability is ensured.
But the most important device at the disposal of Parliament is a no-confidence motion with which Parliament’s confidence in the Ministry can be tested. A successful no-confidence motion will result in the defeat and overthrow of the Ministry.
Thus, under the Parliamentary system of government, the Cabinet is the creature of Parliament. But the working of the Parliamentary system will show that although the Cabinet is the creature of Parliament, it is a creature that leads its creator.
The strength of the Indian Cabinet today is the result of support that it receives from the party to which it belongs and the overwhelming strength of the party in Parliament. With a stable parliamentary support, the Cabinet, in reality, becomes the leader of Parliament.
The initiative for all the policies and programmes of the Government are in the hands of the Cabinet. Nevertheless it must be pointed out that the Indian Cabinet has been treating Parliament with greater consideration and respect than is usual elsewhere under conditions of overwhelming parliamentary majorities.
This has been mainly due to two reasons. First, on some occasions, on questions of great importance which vitally affect the nation as a whole, the Cabinet itself has given over the initiative to Parliament.
The best example of this is provided by the initiative taken by Parliament in settling the question of the reorganised State of Bombay at the time of the adoption of the States Reorganisation Act of 1956. Secondly, members of Parliament have often evinced a willingness to forget party affiliations when questions of purity in administration are brought before it.
On such occasions, the Indian Parliament has shown that it is the mirror and custodian of public opinion in the country and a true representative of the electorate and is second only to the electorate itself.
The manner in which Parliament dealt with the allegations brought before it against a State enterprise like the Life Insurance Corporation in 1957 is a classic example in point. Parliamentary pressure has also brought about perceptible changes in later years in the policies of the Government towards industry, labour, taxation, defense, etc.
We must also point out in this connection the willingness and even the open-mindedness displayed by the Indian Cabinet in dealing with such matters. The Government, with its steamroller majority and ability to crack the party whip against every recalcitrant member showing any sign of defiance, could have imposed its will on Parliament and carried on in a dictatorial manner.
But experience so far shows that Cabinet dictatorship is still somewhat foreign to India although the conditions and circumstances have been abundantly in its favour. It must be pointed out, however, that during a short period of Internal Emergency from June 1975 to March 1977.
The country had experienced a form of dictatorship, although not Cabinet dictatorship. It was largely the concentration of governmental power in the hands of one individual in the Cabinet, the Prime Minister, who exercised it with the assistance of a few others who were not even members of the Cabinet.
The situation, however, did not last long. The Parliamentary elections of March 1977 and the change of Government as a consequence, restored Parliament’s original position of importance as the mirror of public opinion in India.
Adherence to the fundamental principles of parliamentary government has been almost a passion with the Indian Cabinet especially during the Nehru era which had been eager to build up conventions of an abiding nature to make Parliament’s working smooth and successful.
That tradition has been maintained to a large extent in later years also. The flowering of Parliamentary government may yet be a long way off in India. But its roots are growing fast in the Indian soil and there is reason to believe that, in the fullness of time, it will flourish and become a proud part of the best of parliamentary heritage.