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Insights into Editorial: A politics of avoidance that must be questioned

functioning_question_hour

Introduction:

We, the people of India, gave ourselves a Constitution that prescribes for our democracy a parliamentary form of government in which the executive is accountable to the electorate through a legislature which in turn is periodically elected by the electorate.

This accountability lies at the heart of democratic government and is implemented through procedures put in place by the legislature whose functions include law making, controlling the national finances and approving taxation proposals, and having discussions on matters of public interest and concern.

Each of these functions is discharged, daily or periodically, during sittings of the legislature and cover questions, adjournment motion, calling attention, half-an-hour discussion, motion of no confidence, questions of privilege, etc.

About Question Hour:

With the broadcasting of Question Hour since 1991, Question Hour has become one the most visible aspects of parliamentary functioning.

  1. The first hour of every parliamentary sitting is slotted for the Question Hour where Members of Parliament raise questions about any aspect of administrative activity.
  2. In a starred question, a member seeks an oral answer from the concerned minister and this can be followed by supplementary questions, whereas in the case of unstarred questions, a written answer is provided, and no supplementary question can be asked.
  3. Short notice question is one that is asked by giving a notice of less than ten days. It is answered orally.
  4. Ministries receive the questions 15 days in advance so that they can prepare their ministers for Question Hour.
  5. The presiding officers of the both Houses (Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha) are the final authority with respect to the conduct of Question Hour.
  6. Question Hour is regulated according to parliamentary rules. Question Hour in both Houses is held on all days of the session. But there are two days when an exception is made (Day of President’s address & During Budget presentation)

Instruments of accountability:

  1. Among these instruments of accountability, the daily ‘Question Hour’ has an unmatched criticality on account of its regularity and its availability on a basis of equality to every Member of the House, Rajya Sabha or Lok Sabha.
  2. It has a special significance in the proceedings of Parliament since it covers every aspect of government activity, domestic and foreign.
  3. The government of the day is thus helped to feel the pulse of the nation and give the public a view of the performance of both of its elected representatives and of the Ministers.
  4. The Rules of Procedure in both Houses prescribe the operational details. These include, inter alia, the notice period, conditions of admissibility, balloting, and a host of other procedural or regulatory prescriptions.
  5. Questions are addressed to a specific Minister of the government and can seek oral answers marked by an asterisk or a written one.
  6. The veracity of the answers given are matters of utmost importance and rules permit correction of inaccuracies by the Minister concerned.
  7. Copies of answers given are available to Members at the Notice Office before the start of the day’s proceedings as also on the websites.

Deletion of ‘Question Hour’: Citing the pandemic is jarring:

The gravity of the situation resulting from the spread of COVID-19 continues to be experienced by people the world over and by every citizen of the country.

New disciplines have descended on us and we have experienced new norms and styles of existence, learnt to live with total and partial lockdowns, and have moved from no activity to partial restoration of essential activities.

Procedures of social distancing and the wearing of protective masks have been imbibed.

In this context, the deletion of ‘Question Hour’ from the announced agenda of the day is baffling and has understandingly been viewed as curtailment of the right to question the government.

Subsequent clarifications have stated that the Unstarred Questions will continue to be received and answered and that the change will relate only to Starred Questions and the Supplementary questions emanating from them that require to be answered orally.

Criticism of government’s move to suspend Question Hour:

  1. The right of parliamentarians to demand answers from the council of ministers is essential to maintain parliamentary democracy, which is premised on the accountability of the executive to the legislature.
  2. However, in the upcoming session, the question hour has been suspended, thereby removing the only avenue which obliges ministers to immediately respond to queries from the MPs.
  3. Parliament is the beacon of legislative functioning and its functioning will set the precedent for Vidhan sabhas to follow in the future.
  4. The rest of the business of Houses was tightly controlled and set by the government, leaving only Question Hour to hold the government accountable.
  5. Suspension of Question Hour is not good sign in democratic principles especially in a parliamentary democracy.
  6. The move to suspend Question Hour due to pandemic and to find alternate options was not discussed with leaders of political parties and groups.

Conclusion:

The test of a functioning democracy is its ability to face crises — social, economic, political and seek correctives premised on institutions of democracy.

A resort to what has been called ‘the politics of avoidance’ does not help the process. Executive accountability upfront cannot be allowed to become a thing of the past.