Sunday, May 4, 2014

Can a Rajya Sabha Member become the Prime Minister? - Era Sezhian quotes the Parliament debate.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh files his nomination papers for Rajya Sabha elections, in Guwahati on May 15. Photo:PTI
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh files his nomination papers for Rajya Sabha elections, in Guwahati on May 15. Photo:PTI
This is an article by Shri Era Sezhian (92), a well known Parliamentarian in the magazine Frontline.

The highest traditions of parliamentary democracy require that the Prime Minister be a person elected to the Lok Sabha. It was also a solemn declaration made in 1966 by the Congress and its government. By ERA SEZHIYAN

AFTER his heavy responsibility and laborious work for over 17 years to bring about a functioning democracy in India as head of the Interim Government and as Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru breathed his last on May 27, 1964. His demise plunged the country into deep and inconsolable melancholy.

Within 17 months of that came the bombshell of a news: the death of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent on January 10, 1966. It benumbed the nation, particularly the Congress party. Its president K. Kamaraj had in 1964 managed to have Lal Bahadur Shastri elected unanimously as Prime Minister. However, he faced a more difficult situation in choosing a Prime Minister in 1966 as Congress leaders such as Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram, Y.B. Chavan and Gulzarilal Nanda (caretaker Prime Minister) were in the fray.

The Congress Parliamentary Party relied on Kamaraj to find an amicable solution.

He was keen to have as Prime Minister someone who would be able to lead the Congress party in the general election of 1967. Ultimately, he decided on Indira Gandhi. He was aware that his friends Morarji Desai and other members of the group called Syndicate would not accept Indira Gandhi at any time. However, Kamaraj proceeded intensely to mobilise support for Indira Gandhi by contacting important leaders and Chief Ministers.

At the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting on January 15, 1966, only Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai remained as contestants. Mediapersons were waiting anxiously to know whether it was a “girl” or a “boy”. At the end of the counting, the announcement was that it was a “girl”.

Indira Gandhi was profusely thankful to Kamaraj who was solely responsible for the unforeseen event of her becoming the Prime Minister. In the formation of the Cabinet, Kamaraj insisted that Indira Gandhi retain most of the Ministers of the Shastri government, and she acted accordingly.

In her biography Indira Gandhi, Pupul Jayakar noted: “She [Indira] needed Kamaraj’s support and therefore she assumed the role of a pupil, agreeing to every move suggested by him” (page 178, Penguin Books).

Kamaraj’s ‘mistake’ 

In June 1966, Indira Gandhi made a drastic devaluation of the Indian rupee, by 35.5 per cent at one stroke. Pupul Jayakar wrote in her biography: “It was shortly before the devaluation of the rupee that she spoke to Kamaraj. He was very upset and angry and felt that the Prime Minister should not have relied on bureaucrats and advisers who had little understanding of the political scene. Speaking to a friend, Kamaraj commented on the great mistake in making Indira Prime Minister: ‘A great man’s daughter, a little man’s great mistake.’” (page 197).

In the chessboard of politics, a small error in moving a pawn may result in a great defeat because of the well-placed formidable queen piece on the opposite side.

When Indira Gandhi was appointed Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Shastri Cabinet, she was not a member of either House of Parliament. She got elected to the Rajya Sabha on August 26, 1964. She retained the position when she became Prime Minister in 1966.

“Unhealthy conventions” 

H.V. Kamath, a Member of Parliament noted for his acumen for constitutional and parliamentary procedures (as revealed in his active participation in the Constituent Assembly on each and every Draft Article taken for consideration), moved a private member’s Bill in the Lok Sabha for the amendment of Articles 75 and 164 of the Constitution.

The Bill said thus in the Statement of Objects and Reasons: “The highest traditions of the parliamentary democracy, with a bicameral set-up, demand that the Council of Ministers at the Centre and in the States, should consist of members who are directly elected by the people and that the Prime or Chief Minister should in no circumstances be a member who has been elected indirectly.”

As Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was not an elected member of the Lok Sabha, the Bill attracted the attention of the media and MPs in the labyrinthine political situation of 1966. Initiating the discussion of the Bill on April 15, 1966, Kamath said: “India should set an example in this matter of constitutional and parliamentary manners. The Constitution should stipulate categorically that the Prime Minister of the Union should be an elected member of the Lok Sabha…. Of the 16 Ministers of the present Cabinet, seven are from Rajya Sabha and nine from Lok Sabha. No other parliamentary democracy in the world shows such an example with regard to its own Cabinet. I am sorry to point out that one member who had been defeated in the last election had been appointed to the present Cabinet….

“The point I am trying to make out is that we are establishing bad traditions, setting up unhealthy conventions, which are antithetical to the principles and spirit of parliamentary democracy and to even the letter of the Constitution.”

As a large number of members wanted to participate in the debate, Hiren Mukherjee, leader of the Communist Party of India, suggested: “The time may be extended. This is a matter of great importance and [the] Prime Minister should have been here. Some Cabinet Minister ought to be here. The government disregards this debate, because they have a majority.”

Regarding the constitutional conventions of the United Kingdom, Kamath said: “In Great Britain, regarding the House of Commons from whom we have borrowed much of our Constitution, no member of the House of Lords has been the Prime Minister since the resignation of Lord Salisbury in 1902…. Is it not a mockery of the spirit and letter if the Cabinet is headed by a person who is not a member of that House to which the Cabinet is collectively responsible? When in 1945, the British government was carrying [on] in full swing the war against Japan after the fall of Germany, still general elections were held in Great Britain. Here the government is fighting shy to conduct even a byelection in the country under the excuse of an emergency. But in [the] fitness of things, Srimathi Indira Gandhi should get elected to this House and I am sure that she will face a byelection successfully, and after winning come here.”

Pointing out the practice in other parliamentary democracies, Kamath said: “In Canada, another Commonwealth country, all Ministers in charge of departments of government must be members of the House of Commons…. In Ireland, only the members of the Dail Eireann can be members of the Executive Council…. In Germany, the Federal Chancellor, nominated by the Federal President, must be then elected by the Bundestag, which is the lower House.”

Prime Minister and Lok Sabha membership 

In conclusion, Kamath remarked that he was not against the Rajya Sabha. He had respect for that House, and his only demand was that the Prime Minister should be an elected member of the Lok Sabha.

H.N. Mukherjee, CPI leader, said: “I cannot understand why the House does not take this matter seriously enough. Government seems to think that this is a matter which being a constitutional amendment has not the foggiest chance of being passed and, therefore, they can make short shrift of it. Here is a matter of principle, as Congress member [Harish Chandra] Mathur has made it clear. Congress members may not agree with all the provisions of the Bill, but the main point is that the Prime Minister must belong to the Lower House…. It is not against any particular Prime Minister. It is based on a principle…. Lal Bahadur [Shastri] is dead and his seat is vacant. Was it not possible for the Prime Minister to contest that seat, which ought to be a very safe seat for a Congress candidate? This kind of thing like the Prime Minister being a member of the representative elected House becomes a categorical imperative. To quote Erskine May: ‘It is the Prime Minister’s duty to express the sense of the House on formal occasions on motions of thanks or congratulations and motions of confidence.’”

H.N. Mukherjee warned about emerging Chief Ministers who would indulge in the process of choosing Prime Minister: “Already there are indications in the country that the Chief Ministers—satraps—Kamath described them as subedars—are becoming too powerful, and if in addition to the power which they have come to enjoy in the Congress set-up—they dominate in the discussions to decide who is to be the Prime Minister..., then, Sir, where is parliamentary democracy leading us to?”

As more members wanted to participate in the discussion, the House adopted a motion extending its time.

Yashpal Singh (Independent) and Viswanath Pandey (Congress) moved amendments to the Bill seeking circulation of the Bill for public opinion. Kamath welcomed the idea.

Harish Chandra Mathur, a senior Congress leader in the Constituent Assembly and also a member of the Rajya Sabha (1952-56) and the second and third Lok Sabhas, spoke: “As far as the basic principle of the Bill is concerned, I think there can be no two opinions and it will have my full support…. So far as the Prime Minister is considered, it is the first time that we are faced with a difficult situation…. I feel that the only correct thing could have been for the Prime Minister, even before taking the oath before the President, to have resigned from that House. Without being a member of any House, she could be the Prime Minister for six months and then the election should have followed…. I have been advocating all the time that it is time to do away with the emergency…. But it is very significant and important that the government and the Prime Minister make a policy decision that they subscribe to this particular view.

“You are probably aware that the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had made [it] abundantly clear to all the Cabinet Ministers from the other House that if they were to continue in the Cabinet after the elections, they must contest the elections and come to this House. I think at present, all that is necessary is a clear enunciation of that policy and a commitment by the government.”

Healthy convention or constitutional amendment? 

Said R.K. Khadilkar, a senior Congress leader from Maharashtra, a valiant participant in the freedom struggle from 1930 to 1948, a founder-member of the Congress Socialist Party and a member of the second and third Lok Sabhas: “I support the principle of the Bill; whether it should be by amending the Constitution or by a convention should be left to the House, because in Britain, as Kamath pointed out that it is by convention…. Those who have popular support, those who are in touch with the people, with their aspirations and all that, alone lead the country and lead the government and for that it should be a healthy convention.”

N.C. Chatterjee, Independent member in the first and third Lok Sabhas, said: “It is not merely in the fitness of things, but really parliamentary democracy will not be working properly, if that member is not responsible to the really elected democratic chamber…. How can you compel the Prime Minister or move a vote of no-confidence against the Prime Minister unless he is here, a member of the House directly responsible for this House. Without casting any reflection on anybody, without making it a party question, I think all members of this House should support this measure that in the Constitution we should have a provision that the Prime Minister should be an elected member of this House....”

The Bill evoked 32 members of the House to participate in its consideration—19 from the Congress party and 13 from the opposition. All but one of the Congress members participating in the discussion supported the Bill in principle but wanted to develop it by convention.

Speaking on April 29, 1966, on behalf of the government, Jaisukhlal Hathi, Minister of State for Home, said: “I may say at once that so far as the government and the party and all of us are concerned, those who believe in democracy, in parliamentary method, there can be no doubt in principle that the Prime Minister should be normally a member elected to Lok Sabha.”

Further he stated: “Therefore it is a question of having conventions, and nobody would deny that we should set up healthy conventions and such conventions as have force more than any law, more than any written law.”

Hathi lastly observed: “While the spirit behind the Bill is acceptable, it would not be proper to have such a provision in the Constitution. There may be occasions—that too for a limited period—[when] a Prime Minister has to be from the other House.”

In his reply, Kamath said: “I thank the warm support not merely in the House, but in the press and among the people as well. It has been said by several honourable members that we may not amend the Constitution for this purpose. Why not a convention, a healthy tradition as it has grown up in other countries to support the grand edifice of parliamentary democracy…. I wish, and pray to God also, that such a tradition grows in our country. I would like to remind you all that of the manifold ways in which healthy traditions have not grown in this country, but also traditions are set at naught in various ways. I would only point out one or two instances….

“Press reports recently have said that in Himachal Pradesh, the warrant of precedence has been newly devised: to put the President of the local Congress Committee to come next to the Chief Minister. I do not know under what provision this has been devised. It is almost like putting Kamaraj next to the Prime Minister. Next, the Governor of Kerala flew from Trivandrum to Delhi to take part in the party election and indulge in partisan attitude. When the matter was raised, the convenient argument was trotted out that there was no code of conduct for Governor. Because of these things, as traditions detrimental to parliamentary democracy have been built up; hence I would like to have the Constitution amended for this purpose.”

The House was adjourned on that day (April 29, 1966). At the next session of the private members’ business on May 13, 1966, the voting was to be taken as per the Rules of Procedure in respect of a Constitution Amendment Bill. As the government opposed the amendment Bill, the Bill was negatived when the division was taken.

Indira Gandhi successfully contested the 1967 election to be a member of the Lok Sabha and attended the Lok Sabha on March 7, 1967, as the Leader of the House.

The Leader of the House is an important functionary directly and immediately responsible for issues in that House to which the Cabinet is solely accountable.

When in 1991, P.V. Narasimha Rao was elected Prime Minister, he was not a member of either House of Parliament; however, within the time prescribed, he won a byelection from the Nandyal Lok Sabha constituency by an enormous lead of over five lakh votes—a Guinness record.

When major parties such as the Congress, the Janata Party, the Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party formed governments, the Prime Minister was invariably a member of the Lok Sabha.

After the 2004 election, the Congress was to form the government with the support of 14 of its electoral allies and the outside support of the Left parties.

At the time, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had been elected to the Lok Sabha. Though she was called by the President to form the government, she chose Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister.

Solemn commitment 

The question is: What happened to the solemn commitment made by the Indira Gandhi government during the Lok Sabha debate of the H.V. Kamath Bill in 1966?

Speaking on behalf of the government, the Minister of State for Home said: “So far as the government and the party and all of us are concerned, those who believe in democracy, in parliamentary method, there can be no doubt in principle that [the] Prime Minister should be normally a member elected to Lok Sabha…. It should not be that there should be a total ban or bar. In exceptional circumstances for a limited period, there should be no objection if the Prime Minister is also from Rajya Sabha…. Therefore it is a question of having conventions and nobody would deny that the conventions have force more than the law, more than the written Constitution.”

The following issues need to be clarified:

Was the appointment of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister in 2004 not a departure from the solemn declaration made in 1966 by the Congress government and the Congress party on the acceptance of the principle that the Prime Minister should be an elected member of the Lok Sabha—a principle to be implemented by “convention having more force than the written Constitution”?

The government stated in 1966 that “there may be occasions—that too for a limited period—a Prime Minister has to be from the other House”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has continued in the post of Prime Minister for over nine years. Is it a “short period” as visualised in 1966?

In the Lok Sabha debate in 1966 Congress member Harish Chandra Mathur referred to the decision of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that “all the Cabinet Ministers from the House [Rajya Sabha], if they were to continue in the Cabinet after the elections, must contest the elections and come to Lok Sabha”. Is there an exemption to the post of Prime Minister in the case of Manmohan Singh?

H.V. Kamath pointed out in the Lok Sabha that one member who had been defeated in the prior election was appointed to the Cabinet of Indira Gandhi—incidentally at that time it attracted wide criticism and evoked critical comments in the media. Has this point any relevance now in the case of Manmohan Singh who, despite being defeated in the 1999 general election from the South Delhi parliamentary constituency, continues to be Prime Minister?

Regarding the preference for parliamentary system over the presidential system, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee, explained: “Under the non-parliamentary system, such as the one that exists in the U.S.A., the assessment of the responsibility of the executive is periodic. It takes place once in two years. It is done by the electorate. In England, where the parliamentary system prevails, the assessment of responsibility of the executive is both daily and periodic. The daily assessment is done by Members of Parliament, through questions, resolutions, no-confidence motions, adjournment motions and debates on addresses. Periodic assessment is done by the electorate at the time of the election which may take place every five years or earlier. The daily assessment of responsibility which is not available under the American system is, it is felt, far more effective than the periodic assessment and far more necessary in a country like India. The Draft Constitution in recommending the parliamentary system of executive has preferred more responsibility to more stability.”

The daily assessment can be done only by the Lok Sabha in India; hence the Prime Minister should necessarily be an elected Member of the Lok Sabha.

Role of Prime Minister in a parliamentary system 

In his meritorious treatise Cabinet Government, Ivor Jennings stated: “The government owes a responsibility to the House of Commons alone. A vote in that House can compel the government either to resign or to advise dissolution of the House. The Prime Minister is not merely chairman of the Cabinet; he is, also, responsible for the party organisation. That organisation matters in the House of Commons and does not matter in the House of Lords. Even when the government has the majority in the House of Lords, the effective decisions are taken in the lower House. It is essential, in practice, that the Prime Minister should have his finger on the pulse of Parliament; that is in the House of Commons” (page 24).

More categorical was the assertion of Walter Bagehot in his The British Constitution: “A Prime Minister must show what he is. He must meet the House of Commons in debate; he must be able to guide the Assembly in the management of its business, to gain its ear in every emergency, to rule it in its hours of excitement. He is conspicuously submitted to searching test, and if he fails, he must resign” (page 58).

In his nine years of adorning the venerable post of Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has failed miserably in all his duties which require no searching test; the only option before him is resignation.

Era Sezhiyan was a Rajya Sabha member. Email:


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