Stringent Rules for Parliamentary Questions Are Helping Ministers Evade Accountability

A mature democracy should provide MPs more elbow room to ask difficult questions.

The president of the vanquished Congress, Rahul Gandhi recently declared that his party may have only 52 MPs against the 303 of the ruling BJP, but they will work together like a “pride of brave-hearted lions” to hold the government accountable in parliament. In a parliamentary democracy, it is essential to have a strong parliament to hold the executive accountable. It is equally essential to have strong parliamentary devices to aid the working of a democratic constitution.

In this context, one of the most important devices available to parliament is the right to question the council of ministers headed by the prime minister. However, close scrutiny of these questions reveals some glaring gaps. While parliamentary questions are raised in both Houses, this article will only examine the process in the Lok Sabha.

During Question Hour in the Lok Sabha – which commences at 11 am on the day of the sitting – MPs are allowed to raise questions, often referred to as ‘starred questions,’ which require oral answers from minister. Since there are 545 MPs, it is not possible to answer everyone’s questions during one sitting. Ministries are thus asked questions on a rotational basis and the questions are chosen through a ballot.

The first 25 questions selected through the ballot are listed as starred questions for a sitting. An MP is allowed to ask two supplementary questions in pursuance of a starred question asked by him, and the speaker may allow any other MP to ask a supplementary question.

The monsoon session of parliament. Credit: PTI

The monsoon session of parliament. Photo: PTI

However, what actually ends up happening is that MPs give speeches while asking these supplementary questions, and due to disruptions – which are becoming a frequent phenomenon – a considerable amount of time is lost. MPs thus end up raising only five of the 25 starred questions in a day.

Therefore, if an MP wants to cross-examine a minister in the Lok Sabha, she not only has to secure a position through the ballot process but must also secure a spot within the top-five slots of the question list – out of the hundreds of questions which are asked. This can be remedied to an extent if the parliament meets at 9 am on the day of the sitting, instead of 11 am. Three hours of questions will enable MPs to raise most or all of the starred questions, thereby increasing the accountability of the ministers.

the questions which need not be responded to with an oral answer but with a written response are known as ‘unstarred questions’. Through a ballot process, 250 unstarred questions can be raised per day during a particular session. While a limitation on oral replies by ministers can be justified, the government must respond to every unstarred question raised by an MP.

An MP is a direct conduit between his or her constituents and the ministers, therefore when queries of public importance are raised by them, it is the duty of a democratically-elected government to respond. If the government feels it is unable to respond to more than 250 questions per day during a session, then it should be mandated to give a written response to every other question submitted by MPs, during the period between the sessions of parliament. Such a provision will improve the accessibility to data and information regarding the functioning of the state.

Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan. Photo: PTI

A question may contain multiple components or sub-questions which are alphabetically listed. However, at times, ministers club sub-questions together rather than responding to specific queries. For instance, following the Supreme Court judgment which recommended the enactment of an anti-lynching law to curb vigilante groups across the country, the government announced that they had set up a high-level committee (HLC) to give recommendations to a group of ministers (GoM) on the matter.

Also read: Parliament in Decline? The Ball is in the Speaker’s Court

In the Lok Sabha, Shashi Tharoor asked a question with seven sub-divisions, seeking the number of meetings held by the HLC and the GoM on the issue of mob lynching, the dates on which such meetings were held, the issues discussed and decisions arrived at in this regard and whether a draft anti-lynching bill had been prepared. The minister of state for home affairs gave a written response clubbing all the parts of the question together, stating that the GoM has met and is seized of the matter, thus evading the specific information sought by the MP.

If the minister’s response requires further elucidation, then an MP can file a notice for a half-hour discussion. The notice has to be given three days in advance, but it can only be admitted based on the discretion of the speaker. Therefore, if a speaker acts in a partisan manner to shield a minister, then he or she can do so – especially since the speaker is not bound to give any written reasons for the rejection of a notice. However, in a democratic system, it is preferable to have questions which are difficult to answer, rather than ministerial replies which cannot be questioned.

The Lok Sabha Secretariat can unilaterally amend the questions submitted by MPs without consulting them. This also has the potential for misuse if the speaker acts in an arbitrary manner. On September 1, 2018, professor Sugata Bose submitted a question to the prime minister about the points he raised in the Wuhan Summit with the Chinese president. However, this question was edited by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, which, in turn, sent the question to the external affairs minister instead of to the prime minister, even though Sushma Swaraj was not even present at the summit.

This is in stark contrast to the days when Prime Minister Nehru would personally answer questions of MPs in parliament in order to encourage the exercise of parliamentary questions. While former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also preferred his minister of state to answer questions directed to him, there was an exceptional moment when he intervened in the Rajya Sabha after an incorrect response was given by the then external affairs minister of India, S.M Krishna, and personally responded to the question with the accurate information.

Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It may be desirable for the parliament to set aside additional time for ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ as practiced in the House of Commons, whereby the prime minister is personally questioned by the MPs for the government’s actions for a brief period of time.

The rules of procedure in the Lok Sabha also provide vague and unreasonable grounds to prevent the admission of a question. For instance, under Rule 41, a question cannot contain “arguments, inferences, ironical expressions, imputations, epithets or defamatory statements.” Suppose the government shifts a project from an MP’s constituency to another region, and the MP in her question provides reasons for why her constituency is best-suited for the project, asking whether the government is willing to review its decision in light of such reasons, the speaker is empowered to prevent the admission of such a question due to the impugned rule.

Also read: Delegated Legislation: The Blindspot of the Parliament

The rules also prevent MPs from seeking the views or opinions of the ministers through a question. Therefore, if an MP asks whether the minister agrees with a demand to remove a provision of an antiquated law or with a demand to revise a certain policy, such a question can be rejected by the speaker. Even when a half-an-hour notice is submitted for a discussion on a question not properly answered by the minister, if the speaker feels that the MP is seeking a revision of a policy, then the speaker can reject the notice. The speaker can also disallow a question if it seeking trivial information (whether something is trivial or not is to be determined by the speaker) or if it is seeking information which can be found in accessible documents.

The existing restrictions render the device of parliamentary questions by MPs as mere kid gloves when seeking accountability from the ministers. A mature democracy should provide MPs more elbow room to ask difficult questions to ministers while ensuring their accountability for actions and policies of their respective departments as well as their personal conduct while holding office.

To strengthen our democratic roots, it is imperative that the existing rules of procedure are revised to make the Indian parliament a robust democratic institution. The absence of checks and balances can lead to the growth of a leviathan state, one which can undermine the very meaning of democracy.

Arvind Kurian Abraham is a lawyer based in Delhi.