Parliament will meet on September 14, but the Monsoon session, which will be a truncated one, will not have Question Hour, and only a curtailed Zero Hour. Admittedly, the pandemic is taking a toll, across sectors and arenas, on life and work as usual. It is neither unusual nor unexpected that Parliament should also be affected. And yet, the problem is this: The modification in its functioning seems informed by a view of Parliament as a forum of transaction of government business, downplaying its role as a platform for the people’s representatives to ask questions and the Opposition to hold the government to account. On paper, Question Hour provides space for MPs from both the ruling and opposition parties to ask questions. Zero Hour, an Indian parliamentary innovation, is also a space open to all MPs to raise matters of urgent public importance. But in practice, both Question Hour and Zero Hour are far more important for Opposition MPs than those from the ruling party. For the Opposition especially cramped in a House in which the ruling party enjoys a large majority, these are precious spaces and opportunities. And amid a pandemic in which the executive is appropriating more powers, and when there is a greater tendency to short-circuit debate and deliberation, it is the Opposition’s spaces that need to be specially and specifically protected, even extended.
Parliaments the world over have had to adapt to the COVID outbreak. But the timetables of other major Parliaments meeting during the pandemic, be it in UK or New Zealand, have remained largely unchanged even as there have been alterations in the modalities — for instance, questions to the Prime Minister in the British parliament were posed both by members in the chamber and remotely. Even within the country, Question Hour has not been done away with by all state assemblies that have met during the pandemic — while Rajasthan and UP did not have a Question Hour, others like Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh did. Amid a crisis, therefore, leaders of government and Opposition must put their heads together to come up with ideas to ensure that India’s Parliament can perform its full and vital role in exceptional circumstances.
In a letter to chairpersons of Standing Committees a few days ago, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha directed them to avoid taking up subjects that are sub judice. The rule of sub judice has always been more a self-imposed restriction in Parliament, which is supreme. Its scope is also in need of redefinition in times of public interest litigation. And then, deliberations of standing committees are confidential, the possibilities of their influencing ongoing cases much lower. Be it the cancelling of Question Hour, the curtailment of Zero Hour or the Speaker’s stern reiteration of the sub judice rule — these are disquieting portents for an institution that needs to make its presence felt more in a crisis, not less.
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