In 1957, Ram Subhag Singh, a Lok Sabha MP from Bihar decided to utilise Question Hour to ask Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari about a suspicious investment made by the state-controlled Life Insurance Corporation of India in the company of a Kolkata-based businessman called Haridas Mundhra. This set off a series of events that led to the discovery of independent India’s first financial scandal and to Krishnamachari resigning from Nehru’s cabinet.
The disclosure of this scandal is one of the best examples of how a parliamentary democracy is supposed to function. In this system of government, the executive is responsible to an elected legislature. As the elected representatives of the people, legislators have the job of questioning the government, asking it hard questions it and – if grave problems are discovered – to even dismiss it.
As is obvious, parliament is the very heart of parliamentary democracy.
In spite of this, however, the Modi government has moved to devalue parliament. On Tuesday, it decided that the monsoon session of Parliament – the first after the Covid-19 pandemic hit India in March – would be held without Question Hour.
Question Hour is a segment of a parliament session during which MPs are allowed to ask questions of the government. Like much of parliamentary procedure, the practice has been borrowed from the United Kingdom. It was in place even before Independence in the legislatures of British India.
Question Hour embodies the power of parliament to check the government. Both in India, as well as in other parliamentary democracies that take after the UK model, Question Hour is vital to parliamentary conduct, allowing elected representatives to make the government more responsive.
While Covid-19 has created an unprecedented situation, using the pandemic as an excuse to curtail Question Hour makes little sense. If hundreds of parliamentarians can meet and the government can carry out its business, surely a way can be found for MPs to ask questions and the government to answer them? It might, for example, be noted that the Union government is going ahead with largely superfluous projects such as redesigning New Delhi. Surely if large-scale architectural plans can be drawn up and executed, bureaucrats can also perform the vital function of responding to queries by MPs.
A poor excuse
Responding to widespread criticism, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said written questions during Question Hour would be allied but nut not verbal ones that actually typify Question Hour, given the public interest they invoke. Like the original decision, this too seems unusual, given that technology and medical knowledge could easily be used to allow verbal questions. In fact, the UK’s version of Question Hour – which India copied – has been going on in full swing.
This decision is part of a pattern where the Modi government has moved to restrict democratic voices and shut down uncomfortable questions about its policy making. For example, the government has given an unusually short window of just ten days to respond to “proposed reforms” to the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act that could alter the very definition of “illegal mining”. Clearly, the government was not interested in public participation for this critical law.
For the past few years, criticism has poured in accusing the Modi government of dangerously centralising power and attempting to bypass democratic checks and balances. Parliament is the most critical part of the checks and balances when it comes to Indian democracy. To refute these allegations, the Modi government must make sure that every parliamentary function is restored fully in this monsoon session.