Every member of Parliament has the right to demand information of the government. The first hour of every sitting of both Houses of Parliament is earmarked for asking, and answering, questions; in Parliamentary parlance it is known as Question Hour.
Question Hour, says former Lok Sabha secretary general Subhash C Kashyap is an “important instrument in the hands of MPs to ensure accountability of the administration”. It dates back to 1892 when the right to seek information from the government was given to Indian members of the Imperial Legislative Council under the Indian Councils Act.
Question Hour, however, does not mean a free-for-all. MPs cannot raise questions which are defamatory, repetitive or hypothetical. Nor can they discuss the conduct of persons holding high office namely the President, Speaker, judges of the Supreme and High courts, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Comptroller and Auditor General.
In the sixth Lok Sabha when Kanwar Lal Gupta, an MP, sought information on corruption in courts, the question was not admitted. Similarly, when AB Vajpayee sought permission to ask a question on MPs criticising the CEC for the schedule of elections to state assemblies, the Speaker declined permission.
There are three types of questions. First, are starred questions where members desire an oral answer on the floor of the House. In the case of unstarred questions, a written answer is laid on the table of the House. While MPs can raise a supplementary to a starred question, unstarred questions have no such provision.
The third category of questions is short notice questions, which concern issues of public importance. Their admissibility depends on the subject matter being urgent and the concerned minister’s willingness to answer it. In case a minister does not want to answer the short duration question, the Speaker can admit it as the first question on the list of starred questions for the day.
Time constraints result in roughly half the questions being answered every day; another 200 unstarred questions are replied to in writing. The fifth Lok Sabha received notices for a little less than 3,00,000 questions. Of the 98,000 questions admitted, 87,000 were unstarred.
Failure to furnish adequate information on starred, unstarred or short notice questions could result in the Speaker allowing a ‘half an hour’ discussion in the House for which a member should give notice in writing.
Question Hour can sometimes be suspended if there is unanimity in the House for devoting more time to other business. In February 1983, for instance, Madhu Dandavate sought suspension of Question Hour to discuss the situation in Assam. Two years later he again took the lead to discuss the bomb blasts in Delhi.
Questions raised by members have often put the government on the mat. In 1951, the then Defence Minister V Krishna Menon was quizzed on funds-misuse in purchasing jeeps. The Mundhra case in 1957 led to the resignation of the then Finance Minister TT Krishnamachary for favouring industrialist Mundhra in the purchase of Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) shares. The enquiry into the use of beef tallow in manufacturing vanaspati ghee can also be traced back to questions raised in Parliament.
(Next Week: Disqualification of Members)