What A Parliament Session Without Question Hour Would Mean

The curtailment of Question Hour will put a dent in Parliament’s ability to hold government accountable, writes Chakshu Roy.

Parliament will meet later this month after being in recess for 174 days. It is the longest gap between the budget and monsoon sessions in the last twenty years, if not more. The announcement about the dates of the session came after the Parliament Secretariat ironed out the logistics for a safe working environment for members. It will also be a session of many firsts. The necessity of physical distancing will require MPs to sit in different parts of the parliament building. The physical boundaries of one house will widen to include the other chamber and the visitor galleries. The houses will function at different times of the day. The Rajya Sabha will work during the first half, and after sanitisation of the parliament premises, the Lok Sabha will begin working in the second half. It will be similar to how the Andhra Pradesh legislature and the newly created Telangana legislature functioned from the same premises in Hyderabad, after the state’s bifurcation.

Aside from the novelty of large video screens and Covid-19 protection measures, there will be two other changes to the functioning of Parliament. First, there will be no Question Hour. And second, Zero Hour might be curtailed. These two ‘hours’ are also the most visible aspects of Parliament functioning. They are similar in some aspects and different in others. Detailed guidelines regulate the functioning of Question Hour. Zero Hour, on the other hand, is not mentioned in the rule book and is an Indian parliamentary innovation. In these two hours, MPs do not, usually, act as political party representatives. During Question Hour, MPs from the ruling party as well as the opposition pose tough questions to their colleagues who are ministers.

MPs questioning ministers is a robust mechanism for Parliament’s scrutiny of government functioning.

Central In Uncovering India’s First Financial Scandal

Its effectiveness became evident within the first decade of independence. In 1957, Congress MP Ram Subhag Singh questioned the Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari about an investment made by the Life Insurance Corporation. LIC had made an investment of Rs 1 crore in six public limited companies of one Haridas Mundhra. On this issue, Subhag Singh was also joined by another Congress, MP Feroz Gandhi. Their questioning set the ball rolling for the uncovering of the first financial scandal in the country. MPs wanted to know why LIC had invested such a large sum in these companies. The outcome of their continued questioning was the finance minister’s statement on the floor of Parliament that LIC would only make investments in blue-chip companies.

Justice MC Chagla, who was the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, was appointed to look into this matter. He held a public inquiry, where he heard the testimony of the Finance Minister, the Finance Secretary, and Shri Haridas Mundhra. In his biography, Justice Chagla characterised Mundhra as a “noted or notorious financier whose interest, as it seemed was not to enhance the financial resources of the country or to improve its economic condition. His sole concern was to play with crores of rupees, buy over concerns, manipulate the share market and spread his financial empire as widely as possible.”

In less than a month, Justice Chagla submitted his findings to the government. His report held that the investment made by LIC was suspicious and the real purpose of the deal was too help the Mundhra companies rather than benefit LIC.

One of the recommendations made by Justice Chagla was that “in a parliamentary form of Government, Parliament should be taken into confidence by the Minister at every stage, and all the relevant materials must be placed before it. This would avoid difficulty and embarrassment being caused at a later stage when the Parliament gets the necessary information from other sources”.

Justice Chagla’s report led to Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari's resignation from the council of ministers of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Strengthening The Practice

That’s just one example of how Question Hour has deepened the parliamentary accountability of government. Parliament recognises the critical role played by Question Hour, and in one of its publications, it refers to Question Hour as, “the test of the Government’s accountability, an indispensable part of the art of the opposition and even a deterrent on bureaucratic inertia”. Over the years the presiding officers of both houses have also strengthened the functioning of Question Hour. During a session, they routinely refuse permission to suspend question hour to discuss an issue.

During the term of the 14th Lok Sabha that ran from 2004 to 2009, there were a few occasions when MPs who had asked questions during the question hour were not present in the house. The rules of Lok Sabha provided that ministers could put the written reply on the floor of the house, and no supplementary questions were allowed. Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee believed that questions were a property of the house. Therefore even in the absence of the MP who had put in the question, other MPs could ask follow-up questions to the minister.

The oral answering of questions is the part of Question Hour that is visible to the public. MPs also ask questions for which they get responses in writing from the government. These constitute 92% of the total questions in Lok Sabha. Written responses are great for getting valuable information about government functioning. But it is the oral questioning whose live broadcasting which puts pressure on the government ministers. Ministers prepare extensively to avoid the public embarrassment of being caught on the wrong foot while answering a question. Officers from their ministry are present in Parliament to brief them. It is their presence that has been cited in media reports as causing difficulties in holding Question Hour in the upcoming session. The initial announcement from Parliament seemed to suggest that MPs will not be able to ask any questions in the session.

According to a parliamentary update on Thursday, MPs can ask ministers ‘unstarred questions’ which require written responses from them.

A Unique Session

It will not be an easy session for both the government and the opposition. The government wants parliamentary approval for 11 ordinances and other bills pending from previous sessions. The opposition will be keen to corner the government on its handling of Covid-19, the state of the economy, and our relations with China. There will also be the challenge of reduced working hours and dealing with technology. It will be a novel experience for MPs. For the first time, they will be deliberating in Parliament using audio and video links. Their expertise from television debates will help them adjust, but they will miss the sound of thumping desks for a political point well-scored. The flowing wit and banter of the discussion will also get lost due to the limitations of televising MPs from different locations. But it is the curtailment of Question Hour which will put a dent in Parliament’s ability to hold the government accountable for its work in the last six months.

Chakshu Roy heads the outreach team and leads the legislator and citizen engagement initiatives at PRS Legislative Research.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.