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All in it together

It took L.K. Advani five days to deny reports of his speech at Pune on April 11, which were published all over India.

india Updated: May 02, 2006 00:10 IST

It took L.K. Advani five days to deny reports of his speech at Pune on April 11, which were published all over India. He had clearly indicated his disagreement with the Union cabinet’s decision to release three terrorists in exchange for release of the passengers of IA’s flight from Kathmandu which was hijacked to Kandahar in December 1999. “I had aired my views within the government,” he meaningfully asserted.

The denial, on April 16, is unworthy of credence for three reasons. There is no denial of expression of disagreement. Only a selective quote and the usual charge against the press (‘distorted’). It is in line with leaks by his staff at that time in December 1999. It is also very much in character. He behaved the same way on Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s invitation to President Pervez Musharraf for the Agra summit in July 2001 as many as four times — On April 7, 2004, March 15 and June 23, 2005, in press interviews. (“I would claim I did it. I advised Vajpayee that it does not matter if Lahore has failed”), and on June 1, 2005, at Islamabad (“I suggested to Vajpayee to invite Musharraf”).

Solo performances come naturally to one who can say as Advani did on April 2 last year, “I continue to be what I am and I have always been. I would like the party’s image to change.” He emphasised for the 11th time, on April 14, that it was he who had yielded the crown to Vajpayee in late 1995 to the latter’s surprise. The office of Prime Minister was Advani’s gift to Vajpayee. Patel was far more humble vis a vis Nehru.

Vajpayee would have been guilty of dereliction of duty if he had not called Advani to order now as he did in January 2000. As B.R. Ambedkar told the Constituent Assembly on December 30, 1948, “the only sanction through which collective responsibility can be enforced is through the Prime Minister”.

Sardar Patel said India had opted “for the parliamentary system of Constitution, the British type of Constitution” which is based largely on conventions. But the framers of the Constitution wisely decided to incorporate two main ones in the text. The Prime Minister shall be ‘at the head’ of the council of ministers (Article 74 (1)) and ‘the council of ministers shall be collectively responsible’ to the Lok Sabha (Article 75 (3)). The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that British conventions of the parliamentary system apply to supplement the letter of our Constitution.

In May 1992 the British cabinet office published an authoritative document entitled ‘Questions of Procedure for Ministers’. It said: “The internal process through which a decision has been made... should not be disclosed. Decisions reached by the cabinet or ministerial committees are binding on all members of the government... the privacy of opinions expressed in cabinet and ministerial committees should be maintained.”

Lord Melbourne’s cynical remark is recalled in textbooks along with authoritative dicta: ‘Bye the bye, there is one thing we haven’t agreed upon, which is, what are we to say? Is it to make our corn dearer, or cheaper, or to make the price steady? I don’t care which, but we had better all tell the same story’.

Lord Salisbury’s exposition of the rule on April 8, 1878, is still quoted as a classic statement of the law: “For all that passes in cabinet each member of it who does not resign is absolutely and irrevocably responsible, and has no right afterwards to say that he agreed in one case to a compromise, while in another he was persuaded by his colleagues... It is only on the principle that absolute responsibility is undertaken by every member of the cabinet who, after a decision is arrived at, remains a member of it, that the joint responsibility of ministers to Parliament can be upheld, and one of the most essential principle or parliamentary responsibility established.’

Even Joseph Chamberlain, enfant terrible, said that “decisions freely arrived at should be loyally supported and considered as the decisions of the whole of the government’. A minister who is not prepared to defend a cabinet decision must, therefore, resign.

In 1974 cabinet ministers, who were also members of the National Executive of the Labour Party, were told by the Prime Minister that they must observe the conventions of collective responsibility at executive meetings as well.

This doctrine of collective responsibility has a corollary. The doctrine of individual responsibility of ministers for lapses of their own. What has Advani to show for his six-year record as home minister? Where is the oft-promised White Paper on the ISI? Why did he not monitor the publicly botched investigation into Jessica Lall’s murder? Advani is no Sardar Patel. He is Inspector Clouseau.

Advani’s contempt for both doctrines is of a piece with the disdain for parliamentary norms that he has shown as leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.

The Union cabinets faced difficult and agonising decisions in 1989 and 1999. Both deserved understanding from Parliament, the opposition and the nation. But if the roles were reversed, the BJP in opposition would have cited the release of Masood Azhar every time the Jaish committed an act of terrorism.

No understanding is due for Jaswant Singh’s trip to Kandahar.  The deal was settled well before he left and was publicly announced by the NSA, Brajesh Mishra. But there was an aspect to his noble venture which has escaped attention, apart from his warm embrace of the Taliban leaders on the tarmac at Kandahar and his photograph with the Taliban’s Foreign Minister Abdul Wakil Mutawakkil. It is Jaswant Singh’s fulsome praise of the Taliban leaders on Indian soil after his return from Kandahar on New Year’s Day 2000: “We received cooperation from the Taliban throughout the episode.” The praise was never repeated. But it was significant.

Did our brilliant Talleyrand go to Kandahar to forge an entente cordiale with the Taliban? Had he pulled off such a coup, he would have without a doubt, earned a place in history along with Napoleon’s foreign minister’s performance at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Kandahar was not to be Jaswant Singh’s Vienna.