India’s parliamentary democracy didn’t have too many takers in the Lok Sabha at question hour on Monday. Out of 38 members whose questions were listed, 34 were absent, forcing an adjournment in the session that runs from 11am to noon.
Expressing concern over the “collapse of question hour”, which she said was “the essence of democracy”, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar said outside the House: “The absence of several members is a serious issue. Question hour is the time when elected representatives can raise questions to the executive... I am going to write to the leaders of the political parties on the issue.”
Subhash Kashyap, a constitutional expert and former secretary general of the Lok Sabha, said the absence of MPs in Parliament as well as their diminishing interest in participating in discussions shows that “politics as a whole” increasingly has “very little to do with public interest”.
The Speaker was forced to adjourn proceedings, already in uproar after Left MPs disrupted the House over a Central team visiting West Bengal to oversee the law and order situation, after 17 questions had to be dropped as the members who had listed them were not present.
In attendance: (from left) Congress MP Raj Babbar, Communist Party of India’s D. Raja and Union minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh at Parliament House in New Delhi on Monday. Arvind Yadav / Hindustan Times
Kumar called out the names of 34 members, including Varun Gandhi (Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP); Madhu Goud Yaskhi, Eknath Gaikawad, Shruti Choudhary, B. Jhansi Lakshmi, K. Suresh, Anto Antony and P.T. Chacko (all Congress); Jaya Prada (Samajwadi Party); Pulin Bihari Baske and Mahendra Kumar Roy (Communist Party of India-Marxist or CPM); Anandrao Adsul and Shivaji Adhalrao Patil (Shiv Sena); Prabodh Panda and P. Lingam (Communist Party of India); Rajiv Ranjan Singh (Janata Dal-United); and Asaduddin Owaisi (All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen), but none of them was present.
While Gandhi explained he was absent as his grandmother was hospitalized, Yaskhi said he was present in the parliament building, but had gone to the reception thinking he would return by the time his turn came. “I regret my absence. We make so much effort to put the questions,” Yaskhi said. However, he pointed out that the MPs have been demanding an “overhaul” in the question hour procedure.
“If the questions are taken up at random, unlike the present system of following the order, irrespective of which ministry the question belongs to,” there will be better participation, the Congress MP said.
Gandhi, who said he puts the maximum number of questions among first-time MPs, complained that only three or four starred questions are taken up during the hour. MPs from Kerala, four of whom were listed but were not present, said they couldn’t make it as their flight was delayed by half an hour.
Kashyap pointed out that preparing replies entailed public expenditure.
“Sometimes, the ministry and its officials will have to collect information from all across the country to answer the questions,” he said. “It is highly irresponsible and improper from the members’ part to be not present to take up the questions.”
Both the Congress and the BJP said they take the matter seriously.
“It will be our constant effort to ensure that MPs are present in the House,” said senior BJP MP Ananth Kumar.
“It is unfortunate that question hour is getting derailed,” said Prithviraj Chavan, minister of state for parliamentary affairs. “Congress will ask its MPs to take question hour seriously. We should also consider how we can run it more effectively.”
Chavan, a Rajya Sabha MP, said the Upper House was discussing a reduction in the number of questions listed as starred—or those which would be taken up in the House and on which members can ask supplementaries—to 10 from 20. Question hour in the Rajya Sabha runs concurrently with the session in the Lower House.
The absence of MPs, however, is not confined to question hour. On Thursday, when the Lok Sabha was discussing inflation, fewer than 60 MPs were present at one point of time. Not a single MP from the Left, which has been seeking longer sessions, was present. The Congress benches, other than those of ministers, were also empty.
Former CPM MP Hannan Mollah, an eight-term parliamentarian, admitted that the interest level of MPs, including those from the Left, in parliamentary debates has been going down over the years. “On Mondays, they come late and on Fridays, they leave early to catch a flight or train.”