Parliament is going to meet by the middle of this month without the customary and mandatory Question Hour. Usually, every sitting starts with questions, which last for an hour. Questions are asked by members of parliament to seek information on various activities of the government.
If the questions are dispensed with, the flow of information to the House from the government about very vital issues concerning the governance of the country will stop and the members will be deprived of opportunities to question the government and call it to account.
The right to ask questions flows from Article 75 of the Constitution which says that the council of ministers shall be collectively responsible to the House of the people. Collective responsibility implies the accountability of the government to parliament. Under the constitutional scheme, without parliament’s sanction no money can be drawn from the Consolidated Fund of India nor can the money be spent.
Similarly, without the authority of law made by parliament, no tax can be levied or collected by the government. So when taxes are collected or money is spent on various activities of the government, the members have a right to know how much tax has been collected and how much money has been spent and so on. That right is exercised by them by asking questions, besides using other devices and systems available and created by parliament like committees etc.
Question Hour, a manifestation of a direct democracy
Asking questions in parliament is a constitutional right of a member of the House. This right is inherent in Article 75. Viewed from this angle, the Question Hour in parliament stands on a different footing. In a way, every Question Hour is the manifestation of a direct kind of democracy in operation, in the sense that representation of the people directly questions the government on matters of governance, and the government is duty bound to answer the questions in the House.
The question, therefore, arises as to whether the government can unilaterally decide to scrap the Question Hour during the entire session. Rules of the House do not sanction it. Question Hour can be suspended for a day or so to meet any exigency. But then the questions already listed for that day are treated as unstarred questions, which means written answers are given and placed on the Table of the House. However, dispensing with questions altogether for the whole session is a different proposition.
This writer is of the view that the executive has no power to unilaterally decide to dispense with questions without the sanction of the whole House. The House has to expressly sanction it through a resolution. The members should realise that their constitutional right is being taken away by the executive. This cannot be a valid reason for the government to take away the right of the House to ensure executive accountability.
It is true that questions were dispensed with for a whole session on some occasions in the past. Constitutionally viewed such decisions of the executive were wrong. It is also true that a motion for dispensing with Question Hour will have an easy passage in the House because the government enjoys majority. But the government will be compelled to explain to the House and the country the reasons for doing so. The people will find out whether the government is resorting to subterfuge or there are genuine reasons.
In fact, there can never be genuine reasons for dispensing with the questions for the whole session. Where other items of business are permitted daily there cannot be question-specific problems in the House. The real problem seems to be the general attitude of those who run the government. The government machinery needs to exert itself and collect information on each of the questions, and ensure that the information given to parliament is correct.
Therefore, the general tendency is to avoid questions if possible because there is a reluctance to disclose to the public many crucial facts which have political ramifications. No government can lie to an early parliament. If the lie is caught, there will be problems like privilege action. Of course, the majority support in the House will ultimately save the ministers. Nevertheless they will have to face public criticism. For some at least answering questions in parliament is not a very pleasant experience.
‘Not a distraction nor a bother’
Questions in parliament deal with the whole gamut of governmental activities. The various departments of the government collect a great deal of data in connection with questions which throw light on these activities. In fact, there are cases when the departments came to know about a particular problem only because parliament questions compelled them to take a closer look at that problem which would otherwise have remained unnoticed.
The same can be said about the committees too. In reality, parliamentary scrutiny helps the government. Departments pay serious attention to problems which have remained unattended. It is not correct to assume that questions in parliament distract the attention of the government from the pandemic, and therefore, there should not be any Question Hour during the whole session.
Without parliament session and questions during the last five months the pandemic has spread alarmingly to every part of the country. Questions in parliament are not a distraction nor a bother. They help the government to understand problems better and find better solutions.
Protecting the right to question the government
Question Hour is the most interesting time of the sitting of the House from the point of view of accountability of the government. Parliament question is one of the most important businesses of the House, and it is also a business which faces disruption the most. Disruption of Question Hour has almost become routine. It is not known whether the members who disrupt the Question Hour realise the fact that it is their own right that is destroyed – the right to question the government.
The constitution has given them this right which it is their duty to protect. They are duty bound to protect it. But whenever the opposition members are angry with the government the first casualty is the Question Hour. The political parties often direct their members to go down to the well of the House and protest.
In the pandemonium the House is adjourned and the Question Hour goes. The members perhaps do not realise that by doing so it is they who lose and not the government. Loss of question, however, is the loss of each individual member of the House.
Frequent disruption of Question Hour in the past has perhaps given the idea to the government that questions can be dispensed with in the whole session. Some section of the media has quoted the statistics related to disruption of Question Hour in parliament as a justification for dispensing with questions in the coming session.
Disruptions do not justify the scrapping of questions altogether. As has been argued in the earlier paragraph executive has no power to decide to dispense with questions. That decision can be taken only by the House because it is a constitutional right of the members to question the government and seek answers from it.
If the members realise this the Question Hour will never be disrupted nor will the questions be dispensed with for the whole session. There is no treasury versus opposition benches polarity in this. Question Hour belongs to all of them and it is their collective responsibility to protect it.
Ruling party members need not feel compelled to support the proposal from the government to dispense with questions in a particular session. If the House takes a collective decision not to dispense with questions in the whole session it will be a great lesson for the executive. It can then be said that the Indian Parliament has a mind of its own.
P.D.T. Achary is former secretary general of the Lok Sabha.