It is known to all that the cabinet system is a British invention. In such a system, the King, as the Head of the State, reigns but he does not govern. In fact, the real power is exercised by the Prime Minister. This is why, some Constitutional experts have regarded this system as the ‘Prime Ministerial Government’.
We have, following Britain, adopted the cabinet system. Of course, we have like the Americans a President at the pinnacle of the Constitution. But as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Constitution, held in the Constituent Assembly, “There is nothing in common between the system prevalent in America and that proposed by the Draft Constitution”. We have rather accepted the British model and hence the President is merely the ‘de jure’ Head of the State. As Dr Ambedkar aptly said, “the President occupies the same position as the King under the English Constitution.”
So it can be claimed that the Founding Fathers intended the President to act upon the ministerial advice. To quote Dr Ambedkar, “If the President declines to act according to the advice of the Council of Ministers, it will be tantamount to the violation of the Constitution.”
However, the original Constitution did not expressly enjoin that the President was bound to act upon such advice. But it was framed in such a way that the President cannot, normally, act on this own accord. As the Supreme Court held in the case of Ram Jawaya Kapur v. Punjab (1955), “the President has been made a formal or Constitutional head and the real executive powers are vested in the Ministers or the cabinet.” Significantly, the Court reiterated this view in the cases of Sanjivee v. Madras (1970) and Samsher v. Punjab (1975).
Moreover, in 1976, the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution brought about a big change in Article 74(1). It stated that, thereafter, the President would be legally bound to act according to the advice of the cabinet. As Dr BC Rout has observed, “this amendment has reduced the status of the President to that of a rubberstamp.” Naturally, the Prime Minster has come to the limelight as the ‘de facto’ head. In the words of GN Joshi, “he is the pivot on which the whole Constitutional machinery turns.” An able and brilliant Prime Minister can really carry all before him.
The issue should, however, be discussed from five angles. First, the Prime Minister is the chief adviser of the President. Under Art. 74(1), it is the business of the cabinet to ‘aid and advise’ the President in the exercise his functions. So, the Prime Minister, as the head of the cabinet, becomes the prime adviser in such matters.
As pointed out earlier, it is normally difficult for the President to act against the intention of the Prime Minister. If the former intends to act independently, he may be impeached by Parliament under Art. 61. Thus, this Article hangs above him like the sword of Damocles. Of course, the mechanism of impeachment is a ‘difficult and cumbrous’ one. But it may ably guard against the President becoming a dictator.
Secondly, the Prime Minister is the life and soul of the cabinet. It comes up according to his choice and it dissolves if and when he steps down.
Of course, the President forms the cabinet under Art. 75(1). But, as a stark
reality, the Prime Minister ‘chooses’ his colleagues and the former merely ‘appoints’ them. Moreover, under Article 77, the Prime Minister distributes among them the ministerial portfolios and he can shuffle his pack whenever he chooses. Above all, though theoretically, the Ministers hold office at the pleasure of the President, it actually means that it is the pleasure of the Prime Minister which matters.
As such, the Prime Minister is the keystone of the cabinet-arch. If his colleagues find in him an able guide – cool, calm and wise – they follow at his heels. The Prime Minister’s timely intervention often stands a Minister in good stead if the latter is in a fix during the Parliamentary debates. In this sense, he bears the brunt of the criticism of the Opposition. So, if a Minister fails to fall in with the Prime Minister or incurs his wrath, he resigns as did Dr. S.P. Mukherjee, K.C. Neogi, R.R. Diwakar, Sammu Kam Chetty and some others.
Thirdly, the Prime Minister is, as well, a top leader of his party. As his position really depends upon the support and solidarity of his party, he always intends to keep it under his thumb. Indira Gandhi broke away from the Congress when the party-syndicate sought to lord it over her and, thereafter, she formed her own party which always played to her tune.
In 1949, Acharya Kripalani contested for the office of the Congress President with Pandit Nehru’s blessings. But Purushottamdas Tandon, Sardar Patel’s man, won the electoral battle. But Nehru, the PM, tactfully forced him to resign and himself captured the office for four years. In this way, the ambitious Prime Minister tries to keep his party under personal control so that all other leaders support him.
Fourthly, he is the leader of the Parliament. He is regarded as the chief spokesman of the Government inside it and his speeches are taken as reflection of Governmental policy. He advises the President to summon and prorogue the Parliament and, even, the Lok Sabha may be dissolved on his advice.
But, above all, an ambitious Prime Minister seeks to be the leader of the nation. If he is gifted with some rare qualities and the political situation favours him, he becomes a man of destiny. In such cases, he actually becomes the real ruler of the country.
In fact, he is the person to whom the people emotionally turn in order to lead the nation. When an able and active Prime Minister speaks out, he is regarded as the peerless leader of the nation and, in spite of difference of opinion, people become charmed by his eloquence.
But, as Dr. L.M. Sharma has aptly remarked, “not all the Prime Ministers are of one type”. Prime Ministers like Nehru and Indira Gandhi established lofty positions which was beyond the reach of their successors. Indira Gandhi turned the one-party-dominant-system to ‘one-person-dominant-system. Thus our cabinet Government may become a Prime Ministerial Government due to personal factors and political support.
In a flexible Constitution such as ours, much really depends upon some extraneous factors. So, if a gifted person reaches the Prime Ministerial office, he or she soon becomes an object of worship.
(The writer is an Author, Researcher and Former Reader, New Alipore College, Kolkata)