THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BY KAVYA MATHUR A STUDENT OF NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY, JODHPUR.
Collective responsibility means that all members of a government are unanimous in support of its policies and would exhibit that unanimity on public occasions although while formulating the policies, they might have expressed a different view in the meeting of the Cabinet. Collective responsibility, as per the Indian context under Article 75(3) and 164(2), has two broad meanings. Firstly, that all the members of a Government are unanimous in support of its policies and exhibit that unanimity on public occasions although with formality in the policies, they might have differed in the cabinet meeting. And secondly, ministers who had opportunity to speak for or against the policies in the Cabinet are thereby personally and morally responsible for its success and failure. It refers to the accepted conduct of Government ministers as a part of Cabinet. Under this principle, ministers are bound to support publicly the decisions made by the Cabinet as a whole and show no disagreement with these decisions outside. It is a means of maintaining the appearance of Cabinet’s unity and party discipline, genuine collective decision making and showing that the government is firmly behind the policies it promotes and seeks to implement.
The concept of collective responsibility is a political concept. The country is governed by the party in power on the basis of policies adopted and laid down by it in the Cabinet Meeting. Coalition governments have become the order of the day in India, especially at the Centre. A number of disparate political parties come together to form the government as no single party has majority in the House. These various parties lack a common programme and a common approach to national issues and hence there is a casualty in the arrangement of the principle of collective responsibility. This adversely affect the homogeneity and solidarity of the Cabinet.
In a very recent case, Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) dared Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal to quit Modi cabinet if she is genuinely concerned about Punjab waters and construction of SYL Canal to carry water for Haryana. Khaira said that she issued a statement accusing opposition parties of adopting double standards on the SYL canal matter, completely forgetting her role as a Cabinet Minister in the Modi government, which is going all out to ensure early completion of the SYL canal. Khaira said that the Badals are advised not to “run with the hare and hunt with the hound”. Therefore, AAP dares Harsimrat Kaur not to indulge in brazenly shameless politics of dichotomy and if she really supports her party’s view on the SYL issue, she must first quit as Cabinet Minister from the Modi government that is over enthusiastic in constructing the SYL canal, so that Punjab waters can be given to non riparian states like Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi.
Harsmirat Kaur Badal, Union Food Processing Industries Minister is playing brazen double standard politics over the contentious decision of SYL canal. She termed Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal’s decision to denotify the acquisition order whereby land was acquired for the canal as a landmark legislation, she said “this is the historic day when SAD under the most dynamic leadership of Prakash Singh Badal has settled the issue once for all. We have put a big full-stop on efforts to cheat farmers and make them believe they were leading the battle against releasing waters through the SYL canal to Haryana.”
The Modi Cabinet is the supreme directing authority and it integrates what would otherwise be a heterogeneous collection of authorities exercising a vast variety of functions. The individual ministers may have differences among themselves on certain issues but once a decision is taken by the Cabinet it becomes a joint decision of all the Ministers and it is binding on every member to present a common front and pursue an agreed policy. With the Union filling an affidavit in the Supreme Court favouring an early completion of the canal, she should have stood party to the Modi Government’s stand against the state. She must resign because if a minister is not willing to own responsibility for a decision taken by the Cabinet, the only recourse open is to resign. If she doesn’t want to resign then the decision of the Cabinet is as much her decision as that of other ministers. Any exercise of the executive power not in accordance with the Constitution will be liable to be set aside.On one hand, she is supporting the Cabinet’s viewpoint and on the other hand she is supporting her father-in-law’s denotifying scheme. Since she is a member of the Cabinet as a nominee of Shiromani Akali Dal, it is presupposed that the stand taken by the Modi Cabinet favouring early completion and construction of the SYL canal is with the concurrence of the SAD and the Badal Government.
She also issued statements accusing opposition parties of adopting double standards on the matter, completely forgetting her role as a Cabinet minister in the Modi Government. Her duty is not merely to support the government in the Legislature, but also refrain from making any speech or reference outside the Legislature which is contrary to the Government’s policy. She cannot have her own policy as distinct from the policy of the Cabinet.
Collective responsibility reinforces the principle of indivisibility of the Executive. Decisions reached by the Cabinet are binding on all the members of the government as ministers share the responsibility with all ministers. The object is to make the whole body of persons holding Ministerial office is collectively or vicariously responsible for such acts of the others as are preferable to their collective violation so that, even if an individual may not be personally responsible for it, yet, he will be deemed to share the responsibility with those who may have actually committed some wrong. Its extent can be to protect ministers against personal responsibility since it can be used to justify individuals avoiding blame. The collective responsibility of the Ministers to the Legislature, who are representatives of the people, simply translates into collective responsibility of the Ministers to the people.
There have been a number of resignations in the past because of the differences in the Cabinet. CD Deshmukh held the office of Union Finance Minister from 1950 until 1956 when the Centre reorganised the states on linguistic basis with an exception by forming the State of Bombay. Majority wanted it to be a part of the separate Marathi-speaking state Maharashtra. After the scheme was announced, Deshmukh, who was also a Maharashtrian, resigned from the office because of his idea being contrary to that of the Cabinet.
Geoffrey Marshall has identified three strands within the convention of collective responsibility, which are as follows:
- The Confidence Principle: A government can only remain in office for so long as it retains the confidence of the House of Commons, a confidence which can be assumed unless and until proven otherwise by a confidence vote.
- The Unanimity Principle: All members of the government speak and vote together in Parliament same.
- The Confidentiality Principle: This recognizes that unanimity, as a universally applicable situation, is a constitutional fiction, but one which must be maintained, and is said to allow frank ministerial discussion within Cabinet and Government.
In practice, therefore, all the collective responsibility means that every member of the Government must be prepared to support all Cabinet decisions, both inside and outside the House. Harsimrat cannot both remain a minister and criticize or oppose a Cabinet decision in public because the decisions of the whole Cabinet are binding on all the ministers. Collective responsibility requires that on a major question, ministers should be of one mind and voice. In this case, we see that Harsimrat has double standards and she is responsible for the general conduct of the affairs because the responsibility is both, individual and collective. When a minister votes for her government, she is giving a public expression of support even though, in private, she may be less enthusiastic for the measure. But a positive display of support is required.
If this matter were to be brought up in the Court, then the allegations against Harsimrat Kaur would not stand. Owing to the double standards explicated by her, she owes an individual responsibility for her acts and must either resign or associate herself with the decisions of the Cabinet. Her resignation can be directed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Court can order nothing here because for the public, the whole Cabinet is a unanimous upfront and it stands together and if one falls, the whole Cabinet falls.
 Common Cause, a Registered Society v. Union of India, AIR 1999 SC 2979 : (1999) 6 SCC 667.
 Punjab News Express, March 12, 2016.
 City Air News, March 11, 2016.
 U.N.R. Rao v. Smt. Indira Gandhi, 1971 AIR 1002.
 State of Karnataka v. Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 68 : (1977) 4 SCC 608 : (1978) 2 SCR 1.
 Marshall, G., Ministerial Responsibility, 1989, pp. 2-4.