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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Cancelling Question Hour erodes constitutional mandate of parliamentary oversight over executive action

Moreover, such actions prevent the members of Parliament from carrying out their constitutional obligations of questioning, debating, discussing and scrutinising government policies and actions.

Written by P Rajeev | Updated: September 14, 2020 9:06:24 am
The government is duty bound to respond to these questions in Parliament. (File)

The decision to go without “Question Hour” during the Monsoon Session of Parliament, beginning September 14, has evoked serious concerns about the democratic functioning of the institution. Question Hour is not only an opportunity for the members to raise questions, but it is a parliamentary device primarily meant for exercising legislative control over executive actions. It is also a device to criticise government policies and programmes, ventilate public grievances, expose the government’s lapses, extract promises from ministers, and thereby, ensure accountability and transparency in governance.

The annals of history of parliamentary proceedings and functioning in India remind us of the strength and scope of Question Hour as an effective armour to raise the concerns of the people. A classic illustration of this role can be gleaned from this exchange in the Lok Sabha in November 1957.

Ram Subhag Singh (Congress): “Whether LIC had purchased large blocks of shares from different companies owned by Mundhra?”

Deputy Minister of Finance: “Towards the end of June 1957, the corporation had invested Rs 1,26,86,100 in concerns in which Shri HD Mundhra is said to have an interest.”

Supplementary question by Feroze Gandhi (Congress): “May I know whether it is a fact that a few months ago shares were purchased at the higher price than the market of those very shares on that particular day.”

T T Krishnamachari (Union Minister for Finance): “I have been told that no such thing has happened.”

These words soon came to haunt the minister himself and cost him his job in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet. Dissatisfied with the minister’s reply, Feroze Gandhi initiated a half-an-hour discussion on the subject. This single instance points out the poignant relevance of the half-an-hour discussion and the contributing character of Question Hour in the proceedings.

In the discussion, Feroze Gandhi unfolded the story of murky deals involving LIC. The government was forced to appoint a commission of enquiry headed by Justice M C Chagla. Feroze Gandhi promptly offered to be a witness and was the first to testify. Justice Chagla upheld Feroze Gandhi’s contentions and said that the finance minister should take moral responsibility for what had happened. Krishnamachari resigned. This incident shows the strength and scope of the Question Hour.

The Narendra Modi government is in dire need to avoid these type of situations. The time has come to grill this government on different issues such as its failure in handling the pandemic, the unprecedented decline in GDP and its impact on the economy, the New Education Policy, tensions at the border, rising unemployment, the miseries of migrant labour and so forth. The government is duty bound to respond to these questions in Parliament. By doing away with the Question Hour, the Modi government has opted for a face-saving measure.

The right to question the executive has been exercised by members of the House from the colonial period. The first Legislative Council in British India under the Charter Act, 1853, showed some degree of independence by giving members the power to ask questions to the executive. Later, the Indian Council Act of 1861 allowed members to elicit information by means of questions. However, it was the Indian Council Act, 1892, which formulated the rules for asking questions including short notice questions. The next stage of the development of procedures related to questions came up with the framing of rules under the Indian Council Act, 1909, which incorporated provisions for asking supplementary questions by members. The Montague-Chelmsford reforms brought forth a significant change in 1919 by incorporating a rule that the first hour of every meeting was earmarked for questions. Parliament has continued this tradition. In 1921, there was another change. The question on which a member desired to have an oral answer, was distinguished by him with an asterisk, a star. This marked the beginning of starred questions.

These are democratic rights members of Parliament have enjoyed even under the colonial rule. The sad part is that this right is being denied to the elected representatives of Independent India, by the present government. This, however, is not an isolated action in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, the government passed important bills in the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha before the formation of department-related standing committees. Even the Constitution Amendment Bill on J&K was introduced without circulating copies to the members. Several important bills were passed as Finance Bills to avoid scrutiny of the Rajya Sabha. Standing committees are an extension of Parliament. Any person has the right to present his/her opinion to a Bill during the process of consideration.

The government’s actions erode the constitutional mandate of parliamentary oversight over executive actions as envisaged under Article 75 (3) of the Indian Constitution. Moreover, such actions prevent the members of Parliament from carrying out their constitutional obligations of questioning, debating, discussing and scrutinising government policies and actions. It needs to be understood that these actions are a planned covert attempt by the government to diminish the role of Parliament and turn itself into an “Executive Parliament”.

The writer, a former Rajya Sabha MP, is a senior CPM leader

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