Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Guest Post: Manoj Mitta replies

[I feel privileged to introduce Manoj Mitta to our readers. A senior editor with the Times of India, New Delhi, he holds the distinction of having broken the highest number of legal stories in the country during the past decade. Here he responds to my posts on his recent story.]

Guest Blogger: Manoj Mitta

Why there was no need for Manmohan Singh to resign

If it is alright for Pranab Mukherjee to officiate for Manmohan Singh during his illness, then Gulzarilalal Nanda could well have filled the void in 1964 and 1966 without going through the formality of taking oath as Prime Minister. Or so says my friend V Venkatesan while disagreeing with my explanation of how the cabinet is carrying on despite the Prime Minister’s temporary absence. In reality, Nanda is no precedent to today’s situation because both his stints followed the incumbent’s death, not illness. That makes all the difference.

For, contrary to Venkatesan’s impression, the Constitution does make a distinction between a casual vacancy and a temporary absence, even if it did so in the context of the President. Article 65 (1) says in the event of a vacancy in the office of the President by reason of “his death, resignation or removal or otherwise,” the Vice President shall act as President till a new one is elected. And Article 65(2) says when the President is unable to discharge his functions owing to “absence, illness or any other cause,” the Vice President shall discharge his functions till the President resumes his duties.

Given the calibrated approach displayed by the Constitution in the case of the President, there is little reason to suggest that similar flexibility cannot be adopted in the case of Prime Minister in the absence of provisions corresponding to Articles 65(1) and (2). Since there is no vacancy just now in the office of the Prime Minister, there was no need for Mukherjee or anybody else to be sworn in as Manmohan Singh’s successor upon his hospitalisation. Instead, on the analogy of Article 65(2), somebody could well officiate for Manmohan Singh till he recovered enough to resume his duties.

Such an interpretation would also save the constitutional system a great deal of stress. For, if the PM were to resign for any reason (whether due to an illness or otherwise), then the entire council of ministers would have had to go with him. Whoever had been sworn in as PM for the interim period or otherwise, would also have had to get a team of ministers sworn in along with him or after him. This is because when an ordinary minister resigns, there will be a vacancy only in his ministry. But if the PM resigns, then the whole government collapses.

The term of the council of ministers is co-terminus with that of the PM’s. This does not however detract from the fact that the PM is first among equals in what is known as the “cabinet government.” Though other cabinet ministers are appointed on his advice, they are not subordinates who can be overruled by the PM. As Article 74 says, it is the council of ministers that aids and advises the President, and as Article 75 says, it is again the council of ministers that is collectively responsible to Lok Sabha. The only special provision that is there for the PM is the one that casts a duty on him to be a conduit between the President and the council of ministers.
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