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"THE INDIAN PARLIAMENT-
A Comparative Perspective"


Edited by Ajay K. Mehra
Gert W. Kueck
   
 
  Contents  
 
  Contributors V
  Perface
Ajay K.Mehra
IX
  Foreword
Gert W. Kueck
XIII
  Fifty Years of Indian Parliament
Krishan Kant
XIX
  Indian Parliament : Vision, Ideas and Goals
Murlidhar C. Bhandare
XXXI
 
1.
 
Introduction
Ajay K. Mehra
1
 
2.
 
The Indian Parliament and Democracy
Balveer Arora
14
 
3.
 
India: A Wesminister Model of Democracy?
Clemens Juergenmeyer
42
 
4.
 
The German Parliament and Parliamentarism
Dieter Juergenmeyer
56
 
5.
 
Elections and Representational Legitimacy
Jayaprakash Narayan
86
 
6.
 
Parliament and Democratic Governance
Madhav Godbole
137
 
7.
 
Presiding Oficers of the Indian Parliament
Vijay Kumar
174
 
8.
 
Parliamentary Committiees in India and Legislative Control Over administration
Sandeep Shastri
206
 
9.
 
Parliamentary Questions as Instruments of Accountability
A Surya prakash
233
 
10.
 
Parliamentary Privileges in India
O.P. Sharma
269
 
11.
 
The Changing Role of Opposition in Parliament
Prakash Nanda
303
 
12.
 
Floor Management in Times of Coalitions
Pran Chopra
323
 
13.
 
Prime Minister and Parliament: Redefining Accountability
in The Age of Coalition Government

Harish Khare
350
 
14.
 
Parlimentary Federalism in India: The Constitutional Inputs
and the Process of Imagining

Bidyut Chakrabarty
369
 
15.
 
The Role of the Rajya Sabha
Ajay K. Mehra
405
 
16.
 
Parliamentary Reform in India
S.K. Chaube
423
    Index 445
 


Chapter 9
Parliamentary Questions as Instruments of Accountability

--A Surya Prakash

The Question Hour has its origin in the first Legislative Council established under the Charter Act of 1853. Though this Act did not specifically grant members the power to ask questions, 'the Council showed some degree of independence'. Subsequently, members of the Council got the legitimate right to ask question under the Indian Councils Act, 1892.1

The rules framed under this Act outlined the proce­dure for asking questions, the notice period that members had to ensure and the powers of the Speaker in regard to questions. 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. A decade hence after  the  Montagu-Chelmsford  Reforms  came  into force, the rules underwent some more changes. The most important change was that the first hour of every meeting was earmarked for questions. But rules relating to Question Hour continued to evolve and the concept of Starred and Unstarred Questions came into being in 1921. While Starred Questions warranted oral answers, Unstarred Questions merited only written replies. Rules relating to supplementary questions were also changed in order to permit not only the member who had given notice but also other members to ask supplementaries.

More changes were made in the rules pertaining to Question Hour in the year 1937. Under these rules a limit of five questions were fixed per member per day and a specific day was allotted to each department for answering questions. After Independence, the Provi­sional Parliament that existed until the general elections of 1952 and thereafter the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha have continued with the practice of Question Hour at the start of each sitting. The rules have undergone some revision over the years, for example, members can see answers to Starred Questions half-an-hour before the commencement of Question Hour but by and large, the procedure remains the same.

At present, the procedure for asking questions in Parliament is as follows: Members are required to give a minimum of ten and a maximum of 21 days clear notice of a question. When a session is called, the two Houses issue bulletins listing out the dates on which each Ministry/Department is scheduled to answer questions. Each Ministry/Department has a specific 'Question Day' in each House every week. The two secretariats ballot the notices of questions received 21 days in advance of each day allotted for questions and prepare the list of Starred and Unstarred Questions. Represen­tatives of the ministries are permitted through an informal arrangement to collect advance copies of admitted questions. Ministers get printed lists of questions from the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Secretariats five days before th e due date for answers so that they know the admitted version of the questions and prepare their answers.

The secretariats also disallow questions which ask for information which is easily accessible to MPs in documents or ordinary works of reference like gazettes and annual reports which are freely available in libraries and book stores. Similarly, matters which are sub judice are not allowed to be raised through questions.2

Should MPs be dissatisfied with the answers to their questions, the rules permit them to' give notice of half-an-hour discussions to quiz the ministers, in greater detail. They also have the power to file Short Notice Questions on issues of public importance. If the question is admitted, the usual requirement of at least 10 days notice period is waived and the minister is directed to answer the question.3

How Do MPs Use Question Power

All this relates to the history of Question Hour and the existing rules on admissibility of questions in parlia­ment. On the whole, it can be said that these rules and procedures are aimed at giving all MPs equal opportunity for asking questions and to use this right to keep the Executive on its toes. But how do MPs utilise this right? How serious are they in asking questions? Do they use this power to keep the government on its toes and to ensure accountability? Is public interest the focal point of all questions? Or has Question Hour become yet another meaningless ritual? Let us seek answers to some of these questions.

According to W. H. Morris-Jones, who chronicled the functioning of the First Lok Sabha, around 35 to 45 questions were admitted for oral answers every day and normally 20 to 25  questions were answered during

2Kaul and Shakdher outline 19 reasons for not putting a question in the 'Starred' list. Ibid., pp. 399-400.

3For a detailed account of the history, rules and procedures of Question Hour see ibid., Chapter XIX on Questions in Practice and Procedure of Parliament.

Question Hour.4

The rules of procedure were amended in 1971 to limit the number of questions for oral answers to 20.

Over the years, the number of questions that are answered during Question Hour has come down. I remember that in the early 1980s (the Seventh Lok Sabha) when I reported the proceedings of Parliament for The Indian Express, between seven to eight questions came up for oral answers on an average. In the 1990s, this average had dropped to five. Which means that in the initial years, brevity was the hallmark of Question Hour. The questions were sharp and to the point and so were the replies. This is no longer the case. Nowadays MPs are relatively unprepared for Question Hour and tend to waste the time of the House with long-winded questions. At times, they make speeches instead of asking questions and ministers merrily reciprocate. In recent years, ministers have realised that it pays to prolong answers to every question. This way, they ensure that fewer questions mature during the hour.


Since just five questions are answered, MPs whose questions come lower down the order of 20 questions listed for oral answers know for certain that they will never get their turn unless there is large scale absenteeism. Parliamentarians feel that fewer questions mature during Question Hour because of two reasons:

 
1.

MPs have got into the unhealthy habit of making impromptu speeches instead of asking questions.

 
2.

Ministers are given to reading out lengthy replies with the twin objective of tiring out their listeners and consuming precious Question Hour time in order to limit the chances of more questions coming up for oral answers.

4W. H. Morris-Jones, Parliament in India, Longmans, Green and Co., 1957, p. 225.

However, these are not the only problems relating to Question Hour. There are many others, some of them far more serious.  Among them are:

 
1.

MPs preferring quantity to quality in order to impress hapless constituents with statistics on number of questions they ask in parliament.

 
2.

Excessive reliance on newspaper reports for formulating questions and near absence of individual initiative to collect information from government sources on issues.

 
3.

Members allowing traders, industrialists and business houses to draw up questions, thereby allowing them to rest their guns on their (members') shoulders as a quid pro quo for favours received.

 

4.

The ability of ministers, in the Indian context, to coax, cajole or bamboozle an MP to withdraw an 'inconvenient' question or to get the MP to absent himself when the question is called. Let us deal with these aspects separately.

Over the last decade, many members of parliament diligently prepare periodic reports about their Work in parliament and in their constituencies and circulate the same among their constituents. In these reports, MPs give a detailed account of their work within parliament. They list out the issues on which they spoke and the motions and resolutions which they tabled on behalf of their constituents. An important feature of this report is their Question Hour output. They feel that voters are impressed when they hear that their MP asked 500 questions in parliament in a particular year, whether or not that activity meant anything to the constituency. MPs believe that their constituents are taken in by this volume. But how is an MP to draft so many questions on such a bewildering range of issues? It is near impossible for an individual to find so many relevant issues to ask questions. Therefore, MPs get into the habit of hiring people to ask questions on their behalf or to outsource this activity.

Since an MP can ask five questions on every working day of parliament, he creates an establishment to handle this task or entrusts the job to an outside agency. MPs representing major political parties like the Congress Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Telugu Desam Party get officials working in their parliamentary party office to moonlight for them. Some others hire one or two secretaries to do the job. Still others have arrangements with business houses which lend their staff to do the job. The procedure is as follows: An MP signs blank question forms in bulk and leaves it with those hired by him for this task. His question team is active round the year. It scans news­papers, magazines, government reports etc. and prepares questions relating to every conceivable ministry and department. When the secretariats of the two Houses issue summons for a session, the team starts sending questions to the secretariat. The MP arrives on the eve of the session and finds that his team has produced the required quota of questions.

This is indeed a happy arrangement except when the MP makes it to the Starred Questions list. He suddenly finds that the first question next morning relating to gobar gas or primaiy school curriculum stands in his name and he does not have the foggiest idea as to what gobar gas is all about or whether there is too much of geometry in primary school text books. MPs who are well organised get their secretaries to brief them but most MPs neither have the inclination nor the time for such serious parliamentary activity. That is why the MP asking the question is often as nervous as the minister who is to answer it. This is also the reason for absenteeism during Question Hour. On an average just around 100 of the 543 members are in the Lok Sabha

than the 'Cash For Questions Scandal' that rocked the United Kingdom in 1994. The scandal broke when a reporter of The Sunday Times, London posed as a businessman and met several members of the House of Commons with a request to put in questions. Two MPs were willing to oblige him for a price. Breaking the story on July 10, 1994, the newspaper said: 'Senior MPs are abusing parliamentary privilege by agreeing to accept payments from businessmen seeking information about sensitive commercial matters inside government.' The newspaper said it found two leading Tories willing to table official questions in the House of Commons in return for GBP 1,000.33

The newspaper said these revelations confirmed parliamentary rumours that some MPs were willing to 'sell' their services. The two MPs trapped by the newspaper were David Tredinnick and Graham Riddick, both parliamentary deputies to senior ministers. Both the MPs wanted the cheques to be sent to their homes. The newspaper said both the deals were struck in minutes over cups of tea or coffee on the Commons terrace. A third Conservative MP — Bill Walker—also agreed to table a question in return for GBP 1,000 but telephoned back to say that the cheque be made out to his favourite charity. The reporter who posed as a businessman wanted Tredinnick to ask whether the drug 'Sigthin' was prescribed in dispensaries of the National Health Services. There was no drug gcing by that name, but the MP did not bother to check. The only check he made before putting in the question was to ask the 'businessman' if he was an undischarged insolvent!34

A day after the scandal broke, the two MPs were suspended from their posts as Parliamentary Private

™The Sunday Times, London, July 10,1994, p. 1.
"Ibid.

Secretaries to ministers, pending the outcome of any inquiry by the Committee of Privileges of the House of Commons but ministers told the media that it was quite common for MPs to accept 'consultancy fees' in return for asking questions.35

The Committee of Privileges of the House promptly took up the case and after a detailed hearing recom­mended that Tredinnick's membership of the House be suspended for 20 days and that of Graham Riddick for ten. The committee said both were guilty of a 'serious error of judgement'. In agreeing to accept GBP 1,000 from The Sunday Times reporter who posed as a businessman. The third MP—Bill Walker—who wanted the money to be sent to his favourite charity got a 'severe reprimand' for acting unwisely and making it 'virtually obligatory' for the businessman to make a substantial donation to a charity.36

But the 'Cash for Questions' story did not end here. Months later The Guardian broke the story that a lobbying firm working for Mohamed Al-Fayed of the Harrods Group had paid two high flying Conser­vative MPs for asking parliamentary questions. The asking rate this time was GBP 2,000 a piece apart from other payments running to tens of thousands of pounds. Al-Fayed told The Guardian that Ian Greer of Greer Associates met him and offered to run a campaign when he was in a desperate situation brought about by the barrage of criticism from MPs booked by Tiny Rowland. Greer said the campaign would cost GBP 50,000 and that two MPs—Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith—would ask the questions. Greer said 'you need to rent an MP just like you rent a London taxi'. Al-Fayed

35See, 'Tories suspended for fees for questions', The Guardian,}n\y 11,1994, p. 1.

S6 'Cashfor Questions MPs face suspension', The Independent, April 5,1995, p. 2

told the newspaper that he was shocked to hear this. T couldn't believe that in Britain, where parliament has such a big reputation, you had to pay MPs. I was shattered by it. I asked how much and he said it would be GBP 2,000 a question.' Al-Fayed agreed and every month he got a bill for parliamentary services from the lobby firm for GBP 8,000 to GBP 10,000 depending on the number of questions. Al-Fayed also told The Guardian that one of the MPs, Hamilton, even called to say that he and his wife wanted to stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris (owned by Al-Fayed) and that he had agreed. The MP had also been to Harrods with his wife for some 'free' shopping.37 Both these MPs lost their jobs following these reports.

With the media running riot, British MPs made an honest attempt to give it back to the hacks who made their lives miserable. When The Independent conducted a survey of MPs and asked them their views on different professions, the MPs identified journalists as the most dishonest. 77 per cent of the 167 MPs interviewed for the survey said they held a Tow or very low opinion of journalists' honesty and moral standards'. The newspaper said MPs rated pollsters, lobbyists and even building contractors as far more honourable people.38

Fortunately not all MPs are corrupt. The Sunday Times approached 20 MPs, ten each from the Labour and Conservative parties and three fell into its trap. If all MPs were prone to such conduct, members of the British House of Commons would make a neat GBP 50 million a year because they table 50,000 questions every year. Statistics and averages always offer hope. The

37'Tory MPs were paid to plant questions says Harrods Chief, The Guardian, London, October 20,1994, p.1

38 'Muckraking hacks are the lowest of the low: say MPs', The Independent, London, May 1,1995, p. 1.

Sunday Times report showed that just 15 per cent of the MPs in Britain were corrupt. So, there surely is hope for parliamentary democracy!

Where Do We Go from Here

Members of Parliament who probed the Mudgal Case in 1951 came up with an elaborate. Code of Ethics for MPs. Ms. Durgabai Deshmukh, a member, outlined 12 principles, one of which said 'A member should not receive hospitality of any kind for any work that he desires -or proposes to do, from any person or organi­sation on whose behalf the work is to be done by him.'39 However, though parliament was scandalised by Mudgal's conduct, no initiative was taken to formulate a Code of Conduct for MPs. Almost forty years hence, Speaker Shivraj Patil made a fresh attempt to secure acceptance for a Code of Conduct for MPs and legislators when he circulated a draft code in 1992. This code incorporated Durgabai's 12 injunctions and extended it to various situations both inside and outside parlia­mentary precincts.40

Thereafter the Committee of Privileges of the Eleventh Lok Sabha took up the issue and said the Committee of Privileges must be renamed the Commit­tee of Ethics and Privileges and that the code drafted by Mr. Patil must be adopted by the Lok Sabha to give it a mandatory effect. The committee's most signi­ficant recommendation was that mere adoption of a code would serve no purpose. It wanted parliament to frame rules for administering the code, for entertaining complaints from people against MPs and for punishing

39 See Annexures to The Report of the Committee on the Conduct of a Member (The Mudgal Case), Parliament Secretariat, August 1951.

40 See Annexure to the Discussion Paper prepared by the lok Sabha Secretariat for the Conference of Presiding Officers on'Discipline and Decorum in Parliament and State Legislatures', November 1992..


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