The Opposition Congress in Gujarat is up in arms against an order of Assembly Speaker Rajendra Trivedi barring MLAs from asking more than three unstarred questions per week. It has described the Speaker’s action as “an attempt to stifle the voice of Opposition” and “an attack on the right of MLAs to raise people’s issues”.
Trivedi’s order overtook the relevant provision in the Gujarat Assembly Rulebook, which said: “There is neither any time limit for asking an unstarred question nor there is any ceiling on the number of unstarred questions to be asked by a member.” There was a ceiling on the starred questions, though. The Rulebook said: “A member in the Legislative Assembly can ask not more than three starred questions in a day to the Minister.”
As far as the exercise of his discretion by the presiding officer of the Gujarat Assembly is concerned, a comparison with Lok Sabha is in order. The Speaker of the Lower House has been issuing, from time to time under his inherent powers, directives to regulate the working of the House under the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business.
The Lok Sabha has very elaborate provisions with regard to Questions. Rule 45(2) of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha says: “In the list of questions for written answer on any one day, not more than four questions by the same member if she or he has one question in the list of questions for oral answer, and not more than five questions if that member has none in the list of questions for oral answer, and not more than 230 questions in all, shall be included.”
According to the Gujarat Assembly Rules, “Whether the House is in session or not, any member can give the notice of an unstarred question on any working day of the year… The time limit prescribed for giving the notice of a starred question is of 21 days.”
Lok Sabha provides for less time. “Unless the Speaker otherwise directs, not less than fifteen clear days’ notice of a question shall be given,” says Rule 33 of the Rules.
As for the format, the notice of a question has to be given in writing to the Secretary-General along with a mention of the Minister to whom the question is addressed. “Unless the Speaker otherwise directs, no question shall be placed on the list of questions for answer until five days have expired from the day when notice of such question was given by the Secretary-General to the Minister to whom it was addressed,” say the Rules (Rule 35).
Also, “If in the opinion of the Speaker any question put down for oral answer is of such a nature that a written reply would be more appropriate, the Speaker may direct that such question be placed on the list of questions for written answer.” (Rule 44)
“A member who desires an oral answer to one’s question shall distinguish it by an asterisk. If the member does not distinguish it by an asterisk, the question shall be placed on the list of questions for written answer.” (Rule 36)
And, “Not more than one question distinguished by an asterisk by the same member and not more than twenty questions in all shall be placed on the list of questions for oral answer on any one day.” (Rule 37(1))
When a large number of notices of questions are received from several members on the same or allied subject, “the Speaker may direct that all the notices be consolidated into a single notice if, in the opinion of the Speaker, it is desirable to have a single self-contained question covering all the important points raised by members, and the Minister shall then give reply to the consolidated question”. (Rule 54(4))
Originally, the practice in Lok Sabha was to skip an oral question if the member concerned was absent. However, Somnath Chatterjee, who was Speaker from 2004-09, introduced a welcome change. The current provision says: “If on a question being called it is not asked (or) the member in whose name it stands is absent, the Speaker may direct that the answer to it be given.” (Rule 48(3))
Types of questions
* Starred Questions
These are questions that are answered orally on the floor of the House by the Minister concerned during Question Hour. These are identified in the printed lists of questions by an asterisk. Following an answer by the Minister, the member concerned is entitled to ask two supplementary questions.
* Unstarred Questions
These are questions to which written answers are given by Ministers, that are deemed to have been tabled in the House at the end of Question Hour. In this case, members are not entitled to ask supplementary questions.
* Allotment of time
In both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, a member has to give at least 15 clear days’ notice for both Starred and Unstarred Questions. The notice is sent to the Ministry concerned by the Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha Secretariat.
* Selection process
A ballot is held for all notices received by the Secretariat on the fifteenth day before the respective date of the answer through a computerised auto-ballot system to determine their inter-se priority. Separate ballots are held for Starred and Unstarred Questions, and results of ballots are displayed in the Parliamentary Notice Office. Starred and Unstarred Questions are numbered separately according to the priority gained by them at the ballot.