HE Narendra Modi government has been in the eye of a storm over the past several days after the secretariats of the two Houses of Parliament notified that the forthcoming monsoon session commencing September 14 will be conducted without Question Hour due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This decision has understandably elicited an angry response from the Opposition parties which have accused the government of denying them an opportunity to question the executive and demand accountability from it.
There is some merit in the opposition’s charge as this move is in line with the Modi government’s systematic effort to undermine Parliament. Over the past six years, the ruling alliance has attempted to bypass the scrutiny of crucial Bills by Parliamentary committees while the opposition’s demands for debates on the subjects of their choice are met with great reluctance.
Even as the opposition has been struggling to get its voice heard, the Modi government struck a fresh blow by doing away with Question Hour in the coming monsoon session. Earlier this year, the government suspended the MP Local Area Development (MPLAD) fund, again on the pretext of the pandemic, and decided that Rs. 10 crore allocated to each member to undertake specific development projects in their respective constituencies would be transferred to the consolidated fund.
The effort here is to minimise the role of elected representatives and reduce Parliament to a forum for pushing through the government’s legislative agenda.
This special feature of Parliamentary democracy provides a forum for members to grill ministers and hold the government accountable.
But Parliament is both about the government and MPs. The daily proceedings of every session are devoted to Question Hour to allow members to seek answers from ministers to queries on policy decisions pertaining to their respective ministries.
Question hour has always been sacrosanct for it is here that the government is duty-bound to respond to questions raised by members. The ministers have to necessarily come well prepared as any attempt to fudge issues is not good form. And they cannot afford to mislead the House because it immediately attracts privilege. Now that proceedings are telecast live, ministers have to look particularly sharp because the camera allows the viewer to judge if a minister is responding honestly to the queries or is trying to hide something. Or, evade telling the truth.
The importance of Question hour can hardly be overemphasized. This special feature of Parliamentary democracy provides a forum for members to grill ministers and hold the government accountable. “This simple act of questioning shines a light on the work done by the government, “ says Chakshu Roy, head of Legislative and Civic Engagement, PRS Legislative Research. “American Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis once remarked that sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman. The role of Question Hour in a legislature is similar,” he added.
By doing away with Question Hour, members do not get a chance to scrutinise government policies. And it is a loss not just for the opposition but also for ruling party MPs who also avail of this opportunity to seek answers from the government. Last year, BJP MPs Rajiv Pratap Rudy and Hema Malini complained to their own government about their constituencies being denied funds for tourism projects. They raised this issue in the Lok Sabha during question hour. Tourism minister Prahlad Singh Patel had a lot of explaining to do as Rudy and Hema Malini pointed out that despite their best efforts, the Centre had not released the funds promised for the development of tourism facilities in their constituencies. “As you can see, Question hour is not only about extracting information from the government, but also about getting your work done,” said Roy.
But Parliament is both about the government and MPs.
Given the crucial nature of Question Hour, it is not surprising that the move to scrap this practice met with angry protests from the opposition. Accusing the government of reducing Parliament to a “notice board,” Congress MP Shashi Tharoor underlined that questioning the government is the oxygen of Parliamentary democracy. “The one mechanism to promote accountability has now been done away with,” he tweeted.
Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien also came down heavily on the government for its decision to cancel question hour. “MPs required to submit questions for Question Hour in Parliament 15 days in advance. The session starts on 14 September. So Question Hour cancelled? Opposition MPs lose the right to question the government. A first since 1950? Parliament overall working hours remain the same so why cancel Question Hour? Pandemic excuse to murder democracy,” O’Brien tweeted.
Facing flak from the opposition for running away from its Constitutional obligation, the government has now decided to allow unstarred questions. But this is a proverbial case of too little too late. Answers to unstarred questions are submitted in writing while ministers have to respond orally to starred questions and these are still off the table.
And it is a loss not just for the opposition but also for ruling party MPs who also avail of this opportunity to seek answers from the government.
Pushed on the defensive, BJP leaders have justified the government’s move on the ground that this is not the first time Question Hour has been dispensed with and that the opposition has no moral authority to blame the government when there have been innumerable instances when it has repeatedly disrupted Question Hour. There have been occasions in the past when sessions have been held without Question Hour but these were special sessions. The one time when Question Hour was not held was in 1962 during the Chinese aggression. The government and the opposition had mutually agreed to have a session without Question Hour to discuss the situation on the Eastern border. Experts have rightly argued that instead of emulating the “worst traditions of the past”, the government should set higher benchmarks and adopt the best practices.
The ruling party spokespersons also constantly point to the manner in which assemblies in non-BJP-ruled states rush through the government agenda without allowing Question Hour. But comparing the conduct of proceedings in assemblies and Parliament is like comparing apples to oranges. Assemblies take up issues pertaining to their respective states while the national Parliament has a far bigger canvas. Its agenda covers a wide range from the tottering economy to the standoff with China. ”In any case, state assemblies take a lead from Parliament and not the other way round,” said Roy.
On the other hand, Question Hour allows for pointed, sharp queries from members and a minister has to respond to them.
The government has also been at pains to assure the opposition that it is not running away from a debate and that it will answer all its questions in the course of short-term discussions in the forthcoming session. But the opposition leaders have rightly pointed out that their queries get lost in the course of a lengthy debate.
It is a fact that these generalised discussions tend to meander and become an occasion for members from both sides of the political divide to score points over each other. On the other hand, Question Hour allows for pointed, sharp queries from members and a minister has to respond to them. Unlike a debate, follow-up questions are allowed during Question Hour, making it difficult for a minister to gloss over the points raised by a member.
(Anita Katyal is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She has covered the political scenario for over four decades.)