Written Answers to MPs will provide scope for future discussion; the heat of Question Hour shall be missed.
There is brouhaha over the decision to suspend the Question Hour in the Houses of Parliament during the fortnight-long Monsoon Session, which begins tomorrow. MPs’ right to ask questions provides a forum for government assurances and accountability. The House sessions usually begin each day with the Question Hour, in which respective ministers reply to starred questions: Members can seek clarification and ask supplementary. In addition to starred questions, members also admit unstarred questions which elicit written replies. The information provided by government in response to MPs’ questions become part of “Government Assurances”, and Parliament has a Committee on Government Assurances, which later reviews if the affirmation has been honoured. The answers to Parliament questions can lead to a short-duration discussion in a subsequent session. In this session, 160 unstarred questions are being admitted per day, thus 2,240 questions will be answered by the government till 1 October.
Not all unstarred questions are innocuous, as it is popularly assumed. The first scam exposed in Parliament in 1957, which resulted in the resignation of a Finance Minister, emanated from an unstarred question asked by Congress MP Ram Subhag Singh on Life Insurance Corporation. The answer it elicited saw Singh (who later joined Congress-O and was Lok Sabha’s first recognised Leader of Opposition in 1969) pursue the matter in tandem with Feroze Gandhi and the debate which ensued ousted T.T. Krishnamachari from the Cabinet in what is now known as the Mundhra scandal. Thus, the premise that written answers to questions fetter parliamentary debate may not be entirely tenable. Alertness and homework of MPs can make the Treasury Benches squirm. In recent years, Parliament has primarily followed up scandals exposed by the media more than issues which stumbled out of the cupboard due to MPs’ questioning.
The Question Hour has been suspended, according to the presiding officers of the Houses of Parliament, because during this unusual session, in which Covid protocols entail that MPs sit spread over both chambers of Parliament House. Rajya Sabha will function for four hours each day between 9 am and 1 pm and Lok Sabha between 3 pm and 7 pm, using the same chambers. To ensure social distancing, 257 of 540 Lok Sabha members will be seated in the Lok Sabha hall; 172 in the Lok Sabha gallery; 60 in Rajya Sabha hall and 51 in the Rajya Sabha gallery. Similarly, Rajya Sabha’s 245 members shall be seated in the two halls in the mornings—the proceedings shall be conducted virtually, with TV screens being the medium of discourse. If usual Question Hour is held then the galleries are occupied by the officers of the ministries whose performance is subject of the respective questions. The need for doing away with the Question Hour primarily stems from the unavailability of space for officials as galleries too are being taken up for seating MPs.
Zero Hour, the time when MPs can raise issues not prior listed in the agenda, is being curtailed to 30 minutes—it will give a forum for raising issues. Besides, short duration discussions under Rule 193 in Lok Sabha (and corresponding Rule 176 in Rajya Sabha) will also provide fora. And so will be the discussion on 20 Bills and four Ordinances which are on agenda. Congress has set up a panel to plan strategy for opposing the Ordinances (which have drawn flak from farmers in Punjab, Haryana) and the stand of the principal Opposition party will trigger debate. Discussion on Covid and the border situation is also a certainty. As also economic downturn accentuated by the pandemic.
Congress has been most vociferous is protesting the lack of Question Hour. Question Hour was done away with in 1962, 1975, 1976, 1991, 2004 and 2009. Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, a former Parliamentary Affairs Minister, had told media on 2 September that the session is being held in totally “extraordinary circumstances” and it is not possible to conduct a full day’s business in half a day. This sentiment has not found echo from his Lok Sabha counterpart, Adhir Chaudhary, Trinamool’s Derek O’Brien (whose party suspended Question Hour in West Bengal Assembly) and DMK’s Kanimozhi. (Apart from West Bengal, Vidhan Sabhas of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, controlled by a potpourri of parties recently held sessions sans Question Hour).
Rajya Sabha secretariat has researched and revealed that in past five years 60% of time in Question Hour was lost due to din. Lok Sabha statistics may be similar. In recent years, Opposition MPs tend to crowd the “well of the House” (the area in front of presiding officer where secretariat staff sit) to stall proceedings. Due to virtual proceedings and scattered sitting in this session there will be no “well”. One hopes sans the “well” all will be well and Parliament shall debate and address the issues which are confronting the people in these trying times of pandemic at home and threat across the borders.
Tailpiece: On the session eve, Congress chief whip in Rajya Sabha, Jairam Ramesh tweeted that in the last session, on 21 and 22 March when Trinamool MPs Sukhendu Shekhar Roy and Derek O’Brien came to the House wearing masks, the presiding officer ticked them off. “Shows how late we were in taking Covid seriously”, Ramesh’s tweet lamented.