Friday, January 30, 2009

Prime Minister's absence: Who is in control?

Even as it appears our debate on this issue is fast turning out to be academic, it refuses to die down. Read this story from Telegraph for an insight into how India was governed (or should I say non-governed) for the past one week. I feel it strongly vindicates my position that Gulazarilal Nanda is the correct precedent to follow in cases of prolonged incapacity of a Prime Minister. Andrew Vennard's article, 'Prime Ministerial succession' in Public Law (2008)(a subscription wall prevents online access to the article) cites Rodney Brazier about what he thinks as the correct position: If the PM suffered from ill health, the appropriate course of action is for the PM to inform the Sovereign and his parliamentary party of his illness and desire to resign, followed by the above procedure suggested by him in relation to the death of the PM. (Constitutional Practice (1999),p.17). Vennard adds that it may be appropriate for a PM who had advance warning of an illness that was likely to be permanent. Vennard's study shows that no Prime Minister in U.K. has suffered from an illness or an accident that has rendered them unconscious, mentally impaired, severely debilitated, or otherwise incapacitated during their term in office. More important, his study shows that there is no Constitutional convention for the incapacity of the Prime Minister, nor have any attempts been made to plan for this eventuality.

In his article, Vennard argues that the effectiveness and the accountability of the government is clearly promoted by having a recognised leader. The argument that a Cabinet chairperson looking after the PM's functions is sufficient does not appeal to Vennard. He recalls that in 1956 Rab Butler chaired the Cabinet for several months during Anthony Eden's illness. But he notes that although Eden was abroad in Jamaica, it was possible for Butler to remain in contact with Eden and to take instructions from him, or even recall Eden if necessary. Just contrast this with how our Prime Minister was completely inaccessible for governance for a week. He warns that the role of the PM is not confined to chairing the Cabinet, and that situations could develop which would require decisive leadership. If presented with such scenarios, an individual whose role is limited to chairing the Cabinet may find that he is unable to command sufficient authority. Recalling that Eden's absence occurred when Britain was in the process of disengaging from the Suez conflict, Vennard questions whether Eden was correct in taking leave on health grounds, when the situation was grave. Eden ultimately resigned shortly after he returned from his leave of absence.

Manmohan's absence when the country has just recovered from the Mumbai attack points to the inherent dangers to our security, and the potential risks of PM's absence, when such a crisis recurs.

Vennard's suggestion is to provide for an Acting PM. In the absence of a Deputy PM who could take over as the Acting PM, he says, the Cabinet Ministers should be empowered to appoint one of their number as Acting PM. Vennard does not include India in his comparative study. But India, in my view, appears unique in that it enables a Prime Ministerial succession with all the flexibility that is required for an interim period, without compromising or diluting his authority, powers or functions. Sadly, our leaders have not realised the inherent potential of Article 74 to address the situations like the one we are currently facing.
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