Accountability of the Executive to the Legislature is the lynchpin of a parliamentary democracy. The framers of Indian Constitution preferred accountability over the stability of the Executive.
The device of question is a powerful tool of oversight and accountability. MPs need and elicit information on a bewildering range of issues within the specific cognisance of the government. The right to ask questions is an inherent and inalienable right of members and this right is exercised to press for action, to make a point on behalf of the constituents, to bring government’s stand on record with a view to quelling doubts or misgivings or to throw the light of publicity on acts of omission and commission of the government.
It is said that by each question there hangs a tale. More often, in the garb of seeking information, questions are slanted or loaded as MPs have certain foreknowledge in many cases. The author of the Parliamentary Questions, Glorious Beginning to an Uncertain Future, rightly emphasises the importance of questions by telling that no other parliamentary device gives such a vast and equal opportunity to MPs, the party bosses and the backbenchers alike as the ballot system, or the shuffle, is blind to consideration of party affiliation or seniority.
The author has painstakingly documented the evolution of parliamentary questions right from the Indian Councils Act, 1853, the successive doses of constitutional developments which the Britishers introduced half-heartedly and reluctantly and the rules governing the admissibility of questions framed upto the 15th Lok Sabha. The first question asked by the Raja of Bhinga on 16th February, 1893 (under the Indian Councils Act, 1892) raised the depredation let loose by the revenue official on the villagers and the shopkeepers who had to provide provisions, fuel, fodder, etc. to the huge entourage perforce.
The rules, however, did not permit any discussion on the answers provided in the House. Members got the right to ask supplementaries after the Indian Councils Act, 1909 came into force and regular Question Hour started from 1921. The book documents the representative subjects on which questions were asked in pre-independent India mirroring the poignant socioeconomic problems and the simmering political disquiet of the times making it a veritable gallery of history. The book is replete with significant developments and incidents like the first instance when an assurance was given in reply to a question in February 1900 by the government and an instance of 1907 when a whole day was consumed by the questions asked by the Nawab of Dacca and answers given by the government.
The questions asked by non-official members reflect their unflinching zeal and patriotic zealotry who seized every opportunity to expose deficiencies, high handedness and autocratic conduct of the rulers and their machinery despite many restrictions and limitations imposed. The author has also foregrounded deep popular concern about the looming uncertainty over the Question Hour. Indeed, “the orderly progression of Question Hour has been besieged by, what look like, scenes of power struggle, of one up man-ship, pandemonium and unruly conduct.” The author has attempted answers to some of the frequently asked questions which are quite instructive and fascinating.
Arguably, the idea of asking questions is not purely a Westminster technique but rooted in India’s great cultural heritage and hoary traditions too. The Hymn of Creation in the Rig Veda speculates about the creation and the Creator and the Upanishads testify to the great argumentative traditions which are in the form of Questions and Answers between seers, scholars and Kings. Even students in the renowned ancient centres of learning like Takshila and Nalanda were granted admission if they replied satisfactorily.
The lamentable tendency to promenade down the well of the House on slightest provocation and to force adjournments, is not only a colossal waste of time and resources but detrimental to public interest too as it blocks the flow of information besides tarnishing the image of Parliament. There is an imperative need to suspend the clamour and clash at least during the Question Hour so that good use is made of the device of questions to address pressing public problems. No other parliamentary device is so versatile and efficacious in its deployment and reach as a simple, innocuous looking question. It is in recognition of the time tested efficacy of questions and as a potentially powerful tool of oversight and accountability that, unless directed otherwise, the first hour is earmarked for asking and answering questions.
One hopes that the book, being a work of scholarly research and abiding interest, is translated into Hindi and other Indian languages for the larger benefit of legislators, researchers and students of constitutional and parliamentary studies.
The author is MP and leader of BJD parliamentary party