In the Constituent Assembly Debates, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar spoke thus on collective responsibility: ¬

“I want to tell my friend Prof. K.T. Shah that his amendment would be absolutely fatal to the other principle which we want to enact, namely collective responsibility. All Members of the House are very keen that the Cabinet should work on the basis of collective responsibility and all agree that is a very sound   principle.   But   I   do   not   know   how   many Members of the House realise what exactly is the machinery   by   which   collective   responsibility   is enforced.  

Obviously,   there   cannot   be   a   statutory remedy. Supposing a Minister differed from other Members of the Cabinet and gave expression to his views   which   were   opposed   to   the   views   of   the Cabinet, it would be hardly possible for the law to come in and to prosecute him for having committed a   breach   of   what   might   be   called   collective responsibility.

Obviously, there cannot be a legal sanction   for   collective   responsibility.   The   only sanction through which collective responsibility can be enforced is through the Prime Minister.

In my judgment collective responsibility is enforced by the enforcement of two principles. One principle is that no person shall be nominated to the Cabinet except on the advice of the Prime Minister. Secondly, no person shall be retained as a Member of the Cabinet if   the   Prime   Minister   says   that   he   shall   be dismissed. It is only when Members of the Cabinet both in the matter of their appointment as well as in the matter of their dismissal are placed under the Prime Minister, that it would be possible to realise our ideal of collective responsibility.

I do not see any other means or any other way of giving effect to that principle. Supposing you have no Prime Minister; what would really   happen?   What   would   happen   is   this that every Minister will be subject to the control or influence of the President.   It   would   be   perfectly possible for the President who is no ad idem with a particular   Cabinet,   to   deal   with   each   Minister separately singly, influence them and thereby cause disruption   in   the   Cabinet.   Such   a   thing   is   not impossible   to   imagine.  

Before   collective responsibility   was   introduced   in   the   British Parliament   you   remember   how   the   English   King used to disrupt the British Cabinet. He had what was called a Party of King’s Friends both in the Cabinet as well as in Parliament. That sort of thing was put a stop to by collective responsibility. As I said, collective responsibility can be achieved only through the instrumentality of the Prime Minister. Therefore, the Prime Minister is really the keystone of the arch of the Cabinet and unless and until we create   that   office   and   endow   that   office   with statutory   authority   to   nominate   and   dismiss Ministers there can be no collective responsibility.”

In State   of   Karnataka   v.   Union   of   India   and another[1],   the Court, after reproducing a few passages from Sir Ivor Jennings and Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, observed: ¬

“…The   following   discussion   on   the   subject   in “Representative and Responsible Government” by A. H. Birch will be found useful in this connection: ¬

“Ministerial accountability to Parliament has two aspects: the collective responsibility of Ministers for the policies of the Government and their individual responsibility for the work of   their   departments.   Both   forms   of responsibility   are   embodied   in   conventions which   cannot   be   legally   enforced.   Both conventions   were   developed   during   the nineteenth   century,   and   in   both   cases   the practice was established before the doctrine was announced (page 131).””

In “Government and Law” by T. C. Hartley and J.A.G. Griffith, the position in regard to the collective responsibility of Ministers to the Legislature is tersely stated as under:¬

“Ministers   are   said   to   be   collectively   responsible. This is often elevated by writers to the level of a ‘doctrine’ but is in truth little more than a political practice   which   is   commonplace   and   inevitable. Ordinarily, Ministers form the governmental team, all being appointed by the Prime Minister from one political party. A Cabinet Minister deals with his own   area   of   policy   and   does   not   normally   have much   to   do   with   the   area   of   other   Ministers. Certainly   no   Cabinet   Minister   would   be   likely   to make   public   statements   which   impinged   on   the work of another Minister’s department.

On a few important   issues,   policy   is   determined   by   the Cabinet   after   discussion.   Collective   responsibility means   that   Cabinet   decisions   bind   all   Cabinet Ministers,   even   if   they   argued   in   the   opposite direction in Cabinet. But this is to say no more than a Cabinet Minister who finds himself in a minority must either accept the majority view or resign. The team must not be weakened by some of its members making clear in public that they disapprove of the Government’s policy. And obviously what is true for Cabinet   Ministers   is   even   more   true   for   other Ministers. If they do not like what the team is doing, they must either keep quiet or leave.”

Speaking   on   collective   responsibility, the   Court   in the     case     of    R.K.  Jain   v.   Union   of   India   and others[2] has opined that each member of the Cabinet has personal   responsibility   to   his   conscience   and   also responsibility to the Government. Discussion and persuasion may   diminish   disagreement,   reach   unanimity,   or   leave   it unaltered.   Despite   persistence   of   disagreement,   it   is   a decision, though some members like less than others.

Both practical politics and good government require that those who like it less must still publicly support it. If such support is too great a strain on a Minister’s conscience or incompatible with his/her   perceptions   of   commitment   and   he/she   finds   it difficult to support the decision, it would be open to him/her to resign. So, the price of acceptance of Cabinet office is the assumption of responsibility to support Cabinet decisions and, therefore, the burden of that responsibility is shared by all.

In Common Cause, A Registered Society v. Union of India and others[3], the   Court,   explaining   the   concept   of collective responsibility, stated: ¬

“30. The   concept   of   “collective   responsibility”   is essentially   a   political   concept. The   country   is governed by the party in power on the basis of the policies adopted and laid down by it in the Cabinet Meeting. “Collecting   Responsibility”   has   two meanings:

The first meaning which can legitimately be ascribed to it is that all members of a Govt, 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. The other meaning is that Ministers, who had   an   opportunity   to   speak   for   or   against   the policies in the Cabinet are thereby personally and morally responsible for its success and failure.”

The principle of collective responsibility is of immense significance in the context of ‘aid and advice’ of the Council of Ministers.  


Govt of NCT of Delhi v. Union of India (2023)

[1] (1978) 2 SCR 1

[2] (1993) 3 SCR 802

[3] (1999) 6 SCC 667