The Ambivalence of Indian Primeministership

“As Prime Minister, I accept responsibility for every single act of the government, including every bad act, every act of nepotism, and every act of corruption…
...As Prime Minister, I’m completely responsible for every good act and every bad act that this government may have done”.
                                                                                                                                                -Jawaharlal Nehru

The Indian Prime Minister is considered to be one of the most powerful Prime Ministers in the world. The Indian system of governance spirals upon the Westminster style of British governance, conferring a wide range of sprawling prerogatives to the Prime Minister. As far as India is concerned, the Prime Minister remains as the avowed symbol of the principle of democratic representation. The Cabinet system of government draws its institutional validity from the Prime Minister’s constitutional primacy. Irrespective of the nature of the government, the cabinet depends on the Prime Minister for its collective dynamism. The centrality of the role of the Prime Minister is pre-eminent on the dominant role that the constitution confers on the Prime Minister. Articles 74 and 75 of the Constitution of India makes the Prime Minister a very powerful head of the Government. Being the leader of the majority party in the Lok Sabha, the Prime Minister is also the leader of the Lok Sabha. The Prime Minister has the prerogative to choose her Cabinet colleagues and she can literally hire and fire them at will. She chairs the cabinet meeting and heads all major sub-committees of the Cabinet. She can advise the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha. Also, she’s the venerated head of the Cabinet secretariat and as the Minister for Personnel, she can control the Indian Administration Service. Also, she’s the head of the Administrative Appointments Committee of the Cabinet and has the last say in appointing the Governors. Also, she’s a grand federal overseer owing to the natural centripetal bias of the constitution. Also, the NITI Aayog is overtly inclined to her office. The Special Protection Act of 1985 virtually elevates the Indian Prime Minister to the status of a semi-God whose physical safety takes precedence over everything else. 

With such a plethora of powers confined to a single person, it’s not surprising to see the Indian State becoming a centralized, centripetal and unitary one during the national emergency of 1975. Prime Ministers such as Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi successfully asserted their position as an ‘elected monarch’. During the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi, it was said that ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’. Even the preamble of the constitution was amended in her tenure. It was mockingly said that ‘the only man in the cabinet of Indira Gandhi was herself’. The Cabinet system of government was reduced to a prime ministerial form of government where the office of the Prime Minister was nothing less than the edifice of an ‘elected monarch’. However, these events appear pretty normal considering the scope of powers vested in the Prime Minister. 

The era of coalitions remains a cardinal peripeteia of Indian Politics. Gone are the days when the Cabinet was used synonymously with the Prime Minister. With the advent of coalition politics, governments became weak and unstable and so as the Prime Minister. The structure of a weak Prime Minister dilutes the rigour of the Parliamentary control over the executive. This era witnessed a systematic erosion in the authority of the Prime Minister. 

The United Front government was led by the then Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda. During his prime ministership, he just casually surrendered his prerogative of choosing his own Cabinet as the United Front bosses nominated the Cabinet members. Gowda was replaced by I K Gujral and like Gowda, he was stripped from his constitutional prerogative of choosing his ministers. His inactiveness and weakness are evident in the following lines:

“The Prime Minister-designate I K Gujral was sleeping in the Andhra Pradesh Bhavan whereas the United Front bosses were haggling over the ministerial portfolios in the next room”

Mr Sharad Yadav, a minister as well as the President of the ruling Janata Dal opposed his own Prime Minister who wanted to introduce the women’s reservation bill. He commented:

“He’s only a Prime Minister, not God”.

In 1998, Mrs Jayalalitha named the cabinet members from Tamil Nadu. Mrs Jayalalitha was at loggerheads with the Prime Minister as she demanded the dismissal of Mr Ramamurthy from the Petroleum portfolio supported by an argument that he was in the cabinet as part of the ‘Jayalalitha quota’ and it’s her right to reshuffle the composition of her quota anytime. After the 1999 ‘Vajpayee vote’, the Prime Minister had no other choice but to give quotas to all the twenty-six parties that constituted the National Democratic Alliance in various ministerial portfolios. There was an NDA coordinating committee constituting of leaders from all the twenty-six parties that formed the alliance and it was chaired by the then Prime Minister Vajpayee but was convened by George Fernandez. It is worth noting that:

“A Prime Minister in a coalition government has even less of an elbow room”

Mr Suresh Prabhu was the minister for Power in the Vajpayee government and was asked to step down by the Shiv Sena Boss (and not the Prime Minister) and his successor was also announced by the Shiv Sena. The Prime Minister had no control over this melee and the changes in the cabinet were done to the satisfaction of the Shiv Sena boss. It was obvious that:

“The Shiv Sena quota in the cabinet was for the Shiv Sena bosses to fill and juggle with the Prime Minister being a mute spectator”

The appointment of LK Advani as the Deputy Prime Minister in 2002 was at the expense of a crumbling Prime Ministerial prerogative. The erosion of the Prime Ministerial authority can be well-understood by the following lines about this appointment:

“It was nothing more than a de facto situation being converted to a de jure reality”

In toto, the Indian Prime Minister, once venerated as an ‘elected monarch’ is reduced to the status of Lord Morley’s primus inter pares during the coalition era. The present Prime Minister, Mr Modi is also one of the strongest Prime Ministers India or even the whole world had ever seen. With enormous powers conferred to the office of the Prime Minister by the Constitution, the concept becomes ambivalent on witnessing weak and incapacitated Prime Ministers of the coalition governments. Hence, a coalition government, ipso facto, creates a weak and wobbly chair for the Prime Minister. Also, the coalition governments may even make a strong Prime Minister behave in a weak manner. It is to be noted that the Prime Ministerial supremacy is closely linked with parliamentary accountability and the erosion of the former will naturally result in the erosion of the latter. The very perception, objective and concept of the Westminster model get diluted in a coalition arrangement. 

The Prime Ministers of India

References:

  • M.R. Madhavan (2017), ‘Parliament’, in D. Kapur, P.B. Mehta and M Vaishnav (eds.) Rethinking Public Institutions in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 67-103.
  • A. Thiruvengadam, (2017), The Constitution of India, A Contextual Analysis, Oxford: Bloomsbury [Ch.2 Parliament and the Executive, pp.39-70]
  • S.K. Chaube (2009), The Making and Working of the Indian Constitution, Delhi: National Book Trust [Ch. VIII: The Union Government I: The Executive, pp.100-131].
  • J. Manor (1994), ‘The Prime Minister and the President’, in B. Dua and J. Manor (eds.) Nehru to the Nineties: The Changing Office of the Prime Minister in India, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, pp. 20-47.
  • H. Khare (2003), ‘Prime Minister and the Parliament: Redefining Accountability in the Age of Coalition Government’, in A. Mehra and G. Kueck (eds.) The Indian Parliament: A Comparative Perspective, New Delhi: Konark, pp. 350-368.