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Collective Responsibility-A Constitutional Ethics – Social Issue Essay, Article for Class 12, Graduation and Competitive Examination.

Collective Responsibility-A Constitutional Ethics

Scheme of The Essay

Exposition: The culture of the politicians has undermined the spirit of the constitution.

Rising Action: In 1998 itself many cases can be cited when the union cabinet ignored collective responsibility.


(1) The apex court in Sanjeevi Naidu vs. State of Madras case clearly defined collective responsibility.

(2) In England ministerial accountability is conventional.

(3) A minister who disagrees with the cabinet should resign.

(4) The Prime Minister should also fulfil this obligation.

Ending: Can a Prime Minister discipline his colleagues is a million-dollar question.


The culture of the politicians has undermined the scheme and spirit of our Constitution. A majority of them now are more concerned with either remaining in power or protecting their party. The political problems facing our country arise mainly from the lack of awareness of constitutional morality on the part of the majority of the political leaders. It is only when the political parties adopt the policy of accommodation, adjustment and compromise and also exhibit the spirit of tolerance can the country boast of a successful parliamentary democracy.

When the Union Cabinet in 1998 recommended the imposition of President’s rule in Bihar after the Minister for Law and Justice. Mr. Thambidurai was understood to have virtually warned that the AIADMK might not be able to support the Resolution when it came before Parliament. What is shocking is that the proceedings of the Cabinet meeting were also leaked to the Press. It was reported in the media that the Minister of State for Finance, Mr. M.R. Janardhanam told the press persons that the Government’s recommendation for President’s rule in Bihar was taken in haste. “They are doing it in haste, it will be a waste,” Mr Janardhanam had then said.

Mr. Ramakrishna Hegde, in a fax message sent from Bangalore to the Prime Minister, pointed out that the decision was against the National Agenda for Governance and that the Government in recommending President’s rule had committed a “monumental mistake” and that it was against the principles of federalism.

The same year the Chief Ministers of the four Riparian States-Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry-agreed on a scheme for implementing the 1991 interim award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal and for creating a River Valley Authority with the Prime Minister as its head. This agreement was reached at the end of the talks spread over two days and chaired by the Prime Minister Mr Vajpayee and after protracted discussions. There were again voices of dissent heard from among the Union Ministers. Mr. Vazhappadi K. Ramamurthy, Minister for Petroleum, told the presspersons in Salem that the solution reached by the Prime Minister was not satisfactory.

Addressing the presspersons at Karur, Mr Thambidurai faulted the State of Tamil Nadu for its failure to force the Centre to submit the original draft before the apex court. He was thus questioning the authority of the Prime Minister. It was the Union Cabinet Secretary who finalised the details of the scheme for implementing the interim order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal and it was the Prime Minister who was going to head the proposed Cauvery River Authority and the proposed Monitoring Committee would have been headed by the Union Water Resources Secretary and the Chairman of the Central Water Commission as one of its members.

When the Director of Enforcement, Mr M.K. Bezbaruah, was transferred, the Union Minister of State for Personnel and Public Grievances, Mr R. janarthanam, had complained that he was side-lined in the decision-making process regarding the transfer of Mr Bezbaruah and other senior Government officials. Mr. Janarthanam also said that in the normal course, the file regarding Mr. Bezbaruah’s transfer should have been routed through him but in this case, “the regular process was not have gone through.” Mr Janarthanam also told the media that he had asked Mr Bezbaruah not to hand over charge as Enforcement Director.

While explaining the scope and ambit of the collective or joint responsibility of the Cabinet under the scheme of the Constitution, a constitution bench of the apex court in the case reported in A.I.R. 1970 SC 1102 (A. Sanjeevi Naidu vs. State of Madras and another) held as hereunder :

“The Cabinet is responsible to the legislature for every action taken in any of the Ministries. That is the essence of joint responsibility. That does not mean that each and every decision must be taken by the Cabinet. Neither the Council of Ministers nor an individual Minister can attend to the numerous matters that come up before the Government. Those matters have to be attended to and decisions taken by various officials at various levels. When these officials discharge the functions allotted to them, they are doing so as limbs of the Government and not as persons to whom the power of the government had been delegated.”

“Collective responsibility” would mean that all members of the Government are unanimous in support of its policies on “all public actions.” It would also mean that the Ministers who have an opportunity to speak for or against a policy in the Cabinet are thereby personally and morally involved in its success or failure. Thirdly, it would also mean that the Cabinet must work as a team.

In England, the principle of collective responsibility which represents ministerial accountability to the legislature is not legal but conventional. In India, the constitution has specifically provided in Act 75(3) that the Council of Ministers shall be collectively responsible to the House of the People. This principle may be regarded as fundamental to the working of the Parliamentary Government. The strength of the Cabinet lies in its solidarity. The principle of collective responsibility would also mean that the Council of Ministers is responsible as a body for the general conduct of the affairs of the Government and that all Ministers stand or fall together in Parliament and the Government is carried on as a unit.

While opinions may be freely expressed within the Cabinet, outside, the Government should have only one opinion. In other words, a Minister who does not agree with the Prime Minister must resign. Every Minister has to support the decision of the Cabinet in public, even if he had differed at the Cabinet meeting. A Minister cannot disown responsibility for any Cabinet decision so long as he remains a Minister. He cannot both remain Minister and criticise a cabinet decision or even adopt an attitude of neutrality or oppose a colleague in public.

A Minister who disagrees with a Cabinet decision on a policy matter and is not prepared to support or defend it should no longer remain in the Council of Ministers. This doctrine is well established in England. It operates in all important parliamentary governments- Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa.  It is incorporated in the constitution of Ireland. “Collective responsibility” is explained by Lord Salisbury thus: “For all that passes in the Cabinet, very member of it who does not resign is absolutely and irretrievably responsible and has no right afterwards to say that he agreed in one sense to a compromise while in another he was persuaded by his colleagues. It is only on the principle that absolute responsibility is undertaken by every member of the Cabinet who, after a decision is arrived at, remains a member of it, that the joint responsibility of the Ministers of Parliament can be upheld and one of the most essential principles of parliamentary responsibility established.”

The principle of collective responsibility is both salutary and necessary. That is why the deliberations of the Cabinet are kept confidential. The obligation of enforcing the collective responsibility principle lies with the Prime Minister who has the ultimate power to dismiss a Minister. Many instances of such resignations can be found in England. Lord Palmerstone resigned in 1853 because he did not agree with John Russel’s Reform Bill. Gen. Peel resigned in 1867 because he could not support Disraeli’s Reform Bill. In 1932. Sir Herbert Samuel resigned because he did not support the Ottawa Agreement. There have been similar instances in India also. Shyam Prasad Mukerjee. K.C. Negi. Dr John Mathai and Mohanlal Saxena resigned because of policy differences with the Prime Minister. The same was the reason for the resignations of Dr Ambedkar in 1951, V.V. Giri in 1952, C.D. Deshmukh in 1956, A.P. Jain in 1958, Mahaveer Tyagi in 1966, and M.C. Chagla in 1967. In the more recent times, Mr. Arif Mohd. Khan resigned from the Ministry of Rajiv Gandhi opposing the Muslim Women (protection of Rights on divorce) Act 1986, and V.P. Singh in 1987.

The object of collective responsibility is to make the whole body of the Council of Ministers politically responsible for the decisions and policies of each of the Ministers and of his Department which could be presumed to have the support of the entire Cabinet. If a Minister remains in Government and criticises its policy, It would amount to disloyalty When the Indira Gandhi government announced the education policy of changing over from English to regional languages in the Universities within five years for undergraduate studies and 10 years for all other studies, the External Affairs Ministers, M.C. Chagla, in his letter of resignation dated August 31, 1967, addressed to the Prime Minister said:

“It might be said that as External Affairs Minister I have nothing to do with education. But I believe in collective responsibility and I am as much responsible for the educational policy of the Government and my friend Dr. Sen. I do not like to remain in Government and criticise its policy. That would be disloyalty. I want to be free to express my opinion. I, therefore, hereby tender my resignation as a member of Government.”

Gone are the days when leaders like M.C. Chagla submitted their resignations since observance of political morality and not merely protecting their political power was uppermost in their minds. Over the years, political culture has changed, so much so that it would be naive to expect such a gesture from the present-day Ministers who issue statement after statements disagreeing with (i) policy matters discussed and decided in the Cabinet (recommendation of the President’s Rule in Bihar); (ii) matters earlier discussed in the Cabinet but decisions procured at the instance of the Prime Minister and followed up by the Cabinet Secretariat (issuance of a Notification under Sec. 6-A(1) of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act 1956) setting-up of Cauvery River Award with the Prime Minister as its chairman; (iii) routine administrative matters (transfer of Mr. Bezbaruah).

The President who takes the oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law, has to fulfil this obligation. As a corollary, he must have the power to take the necessary steps to fulfil this obligation. A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court (AIR 1974 SC 2192, Samsher Singh vs State of Punjab) and another has observed that the powers of the President of India are similar to those of the Crown under the British parliamentary system.

The President has some effective powers which he is expected to exercise in the interest of the nation. While exercising such powers he will not necessarily be guided by the Council of Ministers. He can certainly communicate his unhappiness to the Prime Minister. The steady moral degeneration and deterioration of standards in public life can be arrested only if the President expresses his displeasure to the Prime Minister who has a great weapon in his hand, for, he (the Prime Minister) can demand the resignation at any time of a Minister in his government who offends not only the spirit but also the scheme of the constitutional mandate under Art. 75(3) of the constitution.

In the present coalition politics, it is a million-dollar question whether the Prime Minister can use his ‘weapon’ to discipline the errant Minister thus pointed out by the President. But history will not look kindly upon those who ignore for one reason or another, the scheme and spirit of the Constitution.


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