Dhritarashtra’s coalition dharma

The reaction of almost all Opposition parties to the meeting which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had with TV editors in New Delhi on February 16 to discuss the 2G allocation was on predictable lines — all described it as an “exercise in cover-up”. However, the impression which most impartial observers got was that though they could not agree with many things that Dr Singh had said at the meeting, he had tried to be candid and frank and didn’t try to hide anything.

While trying to be frank and fair Dr Singh referred to the concept of “coalition dharma”, which had guided him in his various acts of commission and omission in the 2G spectrum affair. In fact, if anything was wrong in the stand taken by the Prime Minister on this matter, it was when there were departures from the “coalition dharma” by those wielding power at the Centre, including Dr Singh. But, in all fairness to Dr Singh, he was not using the excuse of “coalition dharma” to justify his role in this affair, but it was an honest belief on his part that he was conforming to what he believed was “coalition dharma”.
As regards the practice which Dr Singh had followed in allowing the leaders of the coalition partners to have their choice of persons in the council of ministers, Dr Singh had done what has become the accepted convention in all countries having coalition governments. It is true that the Constitution of India unambiguously states in Article 75 that the ministers shall be appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister, but it has become an accepted practice of all Prime Ministers to go by the wishes of the leaders of the coalescing partners, and what Dr Singh did was not in violation of this well established convention.
If the leaders of the coalescing parties seek more seats and better portfolios it is their “political right” do so and therefore the leaders of parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam cannot be faulted. But while it is the political right of the coalescing party to ask for better portfolios, it is the dharma of the Prime Minister to go by his own judgment as to what should be the number of ministers from each coalescing party and the portfolios they get.
While “coalition dharma” requires that there be equity and fairness in the allocation of portfolios, this is not strictly followed by coalition governments in India. For example, in today’s Cabinet, led by the Congress Party, all the four important portfolios — home, external affairs, finance and defence — are held by Congressmen. “Coalition dharma” demands that the allocation of portfolios be done strictly on merit basis, which includes the standing of the individual in the party and the country, experience as an administrator, reputation for integrity and other such considerations. The Prime Minister has to also bear in mind the crucial importance some portfolios have acquired in recent years because of technological innovations. Telecommunication is one such portfolio. The Prime Minister was conceding far too much than was intended by the concept of coalition dharma when he told the editors that “in a coalition government you can suggest your preferences but you have to go by what the leader of a particular coalition party ultimately insists”. In the case of former telecom minister A. Raja, the Prime Minister has said that he had “complaints coming from all sides”, yet he entrusted this highly sensitive portfolio to Mr Raja in an unsustainable interpretation of coalition dharma.
What then is coalition dharma? The first and foremost ingredient of coalition dharma is accountability of ministers not only to their own parties but also to the legislature as a whole for their individual acts in the ministry entrusted to them. Also, there should be collective responsibility of the ministers as members of the Council of Ministers. Collective responsibility means that every member of the Council of Ministers is responsible to the people through the legislature whether or not he agrees with a particular decision taken by the Cabinet. That is why in a Cabinet system of government all important decisions by the Central government are discussed in the Cabinet and the Prime Ministers take a leading role in evolving a consensus. The Prime Minister does not have to be requested by any minister to place a particular subject before the Cabinet; on the other hand this decision is taken by the Prime Minister.
In the allocation of 2G spectrum, on which Dr Singh himself had conveyed his views to the telecom minister, he admitted at the interaction with TV editors that actual allotment of licence was never discussed with him and that “licence was not a matter which got referred to him or to the Cabinet”. Dr Singh said that once the finance ministry and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India concurred with the views of the telecommunication ministry, he did not feel “that he was in a position to insist that auctions must be insisted on”. This might have been the honest conviction of Dr Singh but to term it as acting in conformity with “coalition dharma” would not be correct.
An equally important ingredient of “coalition dharma” is the primacy of Dr Singh in taking all the important decisions in the government. When the Cabinet system of government started in Britain, the Prime Minister’s position was considered as one among equals, and, later, as first among equals. But very soon the office of Prime Minister grew out of these very narrow limits and the British Cabinet system of government evolved into Prime Ministerial government. It must be noted that Britain had not shown much faith in coalition arrangements. However, in India, people have shown no inclination to tolerate minority governments and, therefore, there is always the fear about fall of governments and the need for frequent elections. Unfortunately this excessive fear about the likely fall of a government has prompted Prime Ministers in India to make compromises with “coalition dharma”.
An obvious danger if the Prime Minister is seen yielding to the insistence of a minister in asserting what the minister thinks right is that this will lead to the erosion of the primacy of not only the Prime Minister but chief ministers in states as well. And this will eventually lead to the weakening of the Cabinet system of democracy.

P.C. Alexander is a former governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra

Post new comment

<form action="/comment/reply/60716" accept-charset="UTF-8" method="post" id="comment-form"> <div><div class="form-item" id="edit-name-wrapper"> <label for="edit-name">Your name: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="60" name="name" id="edit-name" size="30" value="Reader" class="form-text required" /> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-mail-wrapper"> <label for="edit-mail">E-Mail Address: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="64" name="mail" id="edit-mail" size="30" value="" class="form-text required" /> <div class="description">The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.</div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-comment-wrapper"> <label for="edit-comment">Comment: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <textarea cols="60" rows="15" name="comment" id="edit-comment" class="form-textarea resizable required"></textarea> </div> <fieldset class=" collapsible collapsed"><legend>Input format</legend><div class="form-item" id="edit-format-1-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-1"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-1" name="format" value="1" class="form-radio" /> Filtered HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Allowed HTML tags: &lt;a&gt; &lt;em&gt; &lt;strong&gt; &lt;cite&gt; &lt;code&gt; &lt;ul&gt; &lt;ol&gt; &lt;li&gt; &lt;dl&gt; &lt;dt&gt; &lt;dd&gt;</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-format-2-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-2"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-2" name="format" value="2" checked="checked" class="form-radio" /> Full HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> </fieldset> <input type="hidden" name="form_build_id" id="form-828b53f26a454ff0a9bc104e6e6a11e3" value="form-828b53f26a454ff0a9bc104e6e6a11e3" /> <input type="hidden" name="form_id" id="edit-comment-form" value="comment_form" /> <fieldset class="captcha"><legend>CAPTCHA</legend><div class="description">This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.</div><input type="hidden" name="captcha_sid" id="edit-captcha-sid" value="80419629" /> <input type="hidden" name="captcha_response" id="edit-captcha-response" value="NLPCaptcha" /> <div class="form-item"> <div id="nlpcaptcha_ajax_api_container"><script type="text/javascript"> var NLPOptions = {key:'c4823cf77a2526b0fba265e2af75c1b5'};</script><script type="text/javascript" src="http://call.nlpcaptcha.in/js/captcha.js" ></script></div> </div> </fieldset> <span class="btn-left"><span class="btn-right"><input type="submit" name="op" id="edit-submit" value="Save" class="form-submit" /></span></span> </div></form>

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

I want to begin with a little story that was told to me by a leading executive at Aptech. He was exercising in a gym with a lot of younger people.

Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen didn’t make the cut. Neither did Shaji Karun’s Piravi, which bagged 31 international awards.