A salient instrument of holding government accountable is Question Hour
On December 7, 2022, would commence the Indian Parliament’s Winter Session. Effectively participating in parliamentary proceedings is the solemn duty of every legislator-state or national. Nobody who is a Member of Parliament should give proceedings a skip unless it is absolutely imperative. Unfortunately, the efficacy of Parliament has been steadily undermined due to the creative use of parliamentary rules and procedures and, most of all, the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution of India, colloquially called the Anti-Defection Law.
A salient instrument of holding government accountable is Question Hour. Even that has been gradually rendered redundant by respective parliamentary secretariats disallowing questions of critical national importance on specious grounds.
Parliamentary questions have a glorious tradition stretching back at least three centuries. The first recorded parliamentary question in England in the House of Lords was asked on February 9, 1721, when Lord Cowper asked the then government if a news report pertaining to the arrest of a particular individual was correct. This query was answered in the affirmative and this inaugurated the practice of asking questions in parliament.
Why are questions important? It is because they perform the crucial function of holding the government to account. Having to answer pointed questions about key policies and promises keeps both ministers and bureaucrats on their toes. Questions are also a way of signalling to the government important issues in the respective constituencies of members of the national or state legislatures.
There are strict rules that govern Question Hour and its functioning. For instance, a question cannot be more than 150 words. The notice of the question must be given at least 15 days before the day it has to be answered. Specific days during a parliamentary session are allocated to different ministries.
A member can ask two kinds of questions. A question that requires an oral answer and a question that has a written answer. Both these categories have their respective purposes. Oral questions require the minister to answer on the floor of the house whereas written answers are laid on the table of the house. Oral questions engage the minister in person and the members are allowed to ask supplementary or additional questions at the discretion of the Speaker. Over the years, however, Question Hour, and by extension, parliamentary proceedings have declined in both performance and quality.
First, questions asked by members are routinely proscribedand not admitted by the capricious usage of parliamentary rules. Between September 16, 2020, and April 8, 2022, as many as 36 questions tabled by me were rejected on the threshold by the Lok Sabha Secretariat by the arbitrary use of Rule 41(2)(xxi) of the Rules of Procedure and the Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha. A similar number, if not more, were not entertained between June 2019 and September 2020 by invoking the same or other such analogous rules. This rule allows the Lok Sabha Secretariat to reject questions that may pertain to issues considered secret like composition of cabinet committees, Cabinet discussions, advice given to President, etc. Ironically, nothing in the questions that were asked was of such a nature so as to invite blanket rejection under this rule.
At any rate, even assuming the answer to a question may contain sensitive material, the boilerplate application of this rule under the garb of national security cannot be the end of the matter. Such questions must be sent to a questions committee consisting of Members of Parliament that must independently scrutinise whether the rejection of the question was at all warranted in the first place.
The increasing virulence with which this rule and other such rules are being used has profound implications for the doctrine of separation of powers that underpins our constitutional scheme and that mandates that the primary function of the legislature is to exercise strict oversight on the functioning of the executive. It begs the obvious question, if a government will not trust those elected by the people of India and represent the will of the sovereign, how will democracy then even survive, forget about thriving?
Second, a more structural problem abounds. In Lok Sabha, only 20 out of the hundreds of questions filed are selected for oral answers on any given day. There are 543 members in the lower house and a ballot decides if a member can ask a question. Should representation really depend on a lottery that is akin to the throw of a dice?
It is, therefore, not unusual for members to finish an entire parliamentary session or maybe even a full parliamentary term without asking a single oral question. In the last Monsoon Session, for instance, only 14 per cent of the oral questions were answered on the floor of the house. Granted that time is limited but even in the allotted hour invariably only 5-6 questions get answered. To have a fair chance at asking a question on the floor, a member must figure in the top five of the balloted questions for that particular day. To put it another way, every member has a 0.9 per cent chance of getting to ask a question.
A ballot is done for written questions as well. A total of 230 are selected for written answers on a given day. This means that there is every possibility that a member does not get his question answered either orally or in writing.
The quality of written answers is also deteriorating. Written questions are usually used to ask for specific information from the government. Often, a question with sub-parts asking for particular information is answered by clubbing the sub-parts together and answering in two or three lines. For instance, a question to the ministry of road transport and highways regarding the upgradation of the Banga-Sri Anandpur Sahib road was answered on July 29, 2021. It had five sub-parts. The response perfunctorily clubbed the parts together and did not satisfactorily answer any of the questions asked.
Paradoxically, information provided under the Right to Information Act, 2005, is more comprehensive and detailed as compared to questions by representatives of the people asked in the national legislature. This flippancy is designed to escape parliamentary scrutiny. Unless public officials are held accountable in the hallowed portals of the legislature democracy is rendered meaningless.
This state of affairs erodes public trust in parliamentary proceedings. Robust reforms involving a change in the timings of question hour and increasing the number of oral questions could be a start to help improve parliamentary oversight. As John Stuart Mill notes in Considerations on Representative Government, “to watch and control the government” is central to the “proper office of a representative assembly”.