BY SANSKRITI KATARYA
The Parliament of India is a supreme legislative body; an embodiment of the nation’s confidence and trust in the essence of democracy. There are typically three sessions in the Indian Parliament which are characterised by meetings on almost a daily basis to enable debates, discussions, cross-questioning, formulation and passing of laws and policies. In general, the first session called the ‘Budget session’ is held from February to May, followed by the ‘Monsoon session’ beginning in July and terminating in September. The Winter Session is held from November to December and marks the end of the year. However, like every carefully crafted plan of 2020, the proceedings of the parliament took a backseat owning to the impetuous spread of the corona virus. The Budget session came to an abrupt halt on 23rd March and its reconvention was marred by uncertainty.
After two months of postponement, the Monsoon session started on 14th September and is scheduled to end on 1st October. This late session has come with a series of changes which have been made in order to “adapt” to the current situation. The distressing obliteration of the question hour by the government is by far the most disturbing attempt of unilateral decision making. The Question Hour is the first hour of a sitting session and is devoted to questioning aspects of administrative activity of the government. It is a constitutional right (Article 72) of the Members of Parliament and the concerned Minister is obliged to answer either orally or in writing, depending on the type of question raised.
Out of the three pillars – legislature, executive and judiciary – the intense scrutiny of the legislative bodies is essential for a healthy system of checks and balances in a democratic setup. The opposition plays a crucial role by impugning the capability of the ruling party to form adequate laws and policies. The Parliament can hold the government accountable with the help of question hour and is the cornerstone of democracy. For more than 70 years, the MPs have used this parliamentary device successfully to unveil government functioning. Their questions have helped in exposing financial irregularities and brought hidden information regarding government functioning to the public domain. The Question Hour has become one the most visible aspects of parliamentary functioning since its first broadcast in 1991. So naturally, the latest decision of the ruling party received severe backlash from the opposition on the first day of the session.
TMC leader Derek O’ Brien called the pandemic an excuse being used by the government to “murder democracy”. Congress’ Shashi Tharoor tweeted, “The notification for the delayed parliamentary session blandly announces there will be no question hour.” He accused the government of reducing the parliament to a notice board and using its “crushing majority as a rubber stamp for whatever it wants to pass.” Many other opposition leaders shared similar concerns and wanted the golden hour to be back.
On the other hand, BJP’s Pralhad Joshi was seen defending the decision of the government. He said that the government had spoken to the leaders of various opposition parties before notifying the parliament. To justify the measure, he called the situation extraordinary and sited examples of Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra etc. who have also done away with the question hour. He recalled that it isn’t the first instance of the question hour being removed as it has been done during the 1962 Chinese aggression and also in 1975 (emergency period). He also pointed out that 50% – 60% of the time is anyway wasted by disruptions in both the houses.
Although it can be agreed that disruption is an issue, scrapping the question hour altogether is almost as ridiculous as throwing the baby with the bath. A rational, agreeable and democratic approach would be to tackle the issue by penalising those causing the disruption instead of disposing off the entire system. Time for answering questions could have been extended and questions could be limited according to relevance by the speaker. Justifying present decisions using arguable actions of the past as a crutch only weakens the stance of the government. It was as undemocratic in 1962 and 1975 as it is now. Does the ruling party get to decide what aspects of democracy are worth a sacrifice and at what cost? In short, NO. The moment the ruling party takes away the voice of the people, curbing democratic proceedings for whatever reason, it becomes a move away from democracy and towards autocracy. It sets a lousy example for the incumbents, increasing the likelihood of such instances in the future.
Whatever the arguments may be, the truth remains that times have changed, technology has evolved and so should the government. Even though some wiggle room for questioning exists despite the scrapping, it is not enough. The discussions about the situation in Kashmir, the Chinese aggression, the plight of the migrant workers, the crashing economy, the corona virus exposing the degenerate health system and many other public issues require adequate space for questioning. A virtual session would have served as a novel platform for the same. Covid-19 has pushed people to find creative ways to carry out daily tasks effectively, technological strides have been made and innovation is the need of the hour. Entire court cases, university exams as well as academic classes have been shifted to the online mode, so why not the parliament session? The services of the National Informatics Centre (NIC) could have been used. The sessions could be broadcasted live or recorded and posted online for the public.
Time and again the governments have resorted to questionable decision making; curbing or limiting essential rights during troubling times. Evasion rather than finding solutions has become the pattern for whosoever is in power. World over there have been instances of governments passing draconian and questionable bills taking advantage of the corona virus situation. Therefore cross questioning becomes even more important in this context. The government represents the people of our country; it is our right to hold them accountable and it is their duty and responsibility to be answerable to the nation.