The Narendra Modi government’s move to use the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to scrap Question Hour in Parliament’s coming Monsoon Session, starting September 14, should cause little surprise: in the past six years it has always tried to avoid being held accountable for its actions before the House, despite overwhelming numbers in the Lok Sabha.
It seems Shashi Tharoor’s prediction four months ago that “strongmen leaders will use the pandemic excuse to stifle democracy and dissent” was not far off the mark.
In our parliamentary system, where the executive is responsible to the legislature, the device MPs can most effectively employ is to put questions to ministers, and if not satisfied with the minister’s reply, by asking follow-up questions on the floor of the House.
If a minister fails to answer these properly, the government’s prevarication will be visible to all in the House, and since the telecast of parliamentary proceedings from the 1990s, to the country.
This is what the government was so desperate to avert, as there are many questions out there -- on its tackling of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, its economic mismanagement, the Chinese aggression in Ladakh and its occupation of Indian territory -- which it is reluctant to answer.
What, really, is Parliament’s main function?
For the government, the answer is to pass the legislation the Cabinet recommends, rubber stamp ordinances promulgated in between sessions, and not stop the executive doing whatever it wants.
But for most people, or constitutional experts, it is to hold the government accountable to those who put it in power.
Cancelling Question Hour deprives MPs of the lone device they have to exercise some control over the executive.
The government says as Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sessions will be in shifts, to allow “distancing” in MPs’ seating, there is no time for Question Hour.
The fact is while a “normal” session sits 30 hours a week, six hours daily, the coming session will have 28 hours: four hours a day, but sitting all days of the week, including Saturdays and Sundays.
Of this, half an hour will be saved daily as Zero Hour is cut to 30 minutes, and there will be no private members’ business on Fridays. Trinamul Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien calculated that due to the cuts, the coming session has an extra 30 minutes, more than enough time for Question Hour.
Then the Centre argued officials would have to visit Parliament to assist ministers, increasing visitors in pandemic times, but the solution is simple: to allow ministers and officials to communicate via phone or video conferencing.
While the government claims some Opposition leaders were consulted, MPs asked why an all-party meeting wasn’t called, as this will be the first time in India’s history that a regular parliamentary session will be held without Question Hour.
Several MPs said this would make Parliament a “notice board”, saying questioning the government was the “oxygen of parliamentary democracy”. Others likened it to the general climate of intolerance, with TMC MP Mahua Moitra tweeting: “Asking questions in court is contempt. Asking questions outside Parliament is sedition. And now asking questions inside Parliament is forbidden.”
The government says Zero Hour, where MPs raise vital issues, will continue, though curtailed. But there’s a critical difference. Ministers, even if present in the House, need not respond there, unlike in Question Hour, when they must....