That is myopic since legislatures elsewhere in the world have made extensive use of digital technologies to minimise the requirement of human presence while conducting business as near normal as possible.
The decision to suspend Question Hour in the forthcoming session of Parliament, no matter what the reason for it may have been, signals a desire to avoid accountability. This also holds for the decision to suspend the Zero Hour, when MPs can raise questions pertaining to national and constituency-level affairs without advance notice. Though the government has since said that unstarred questions, which must be submitted 15 days in advance and receive written replies, will be allowed, this partial yielding is hardly enough to douse the controversy that has now erupted with opposition lawmakers alleging that this undermines Parliament and democracy. Indeed, the move to allow unstarred questions while debarring starred questions—which require oral answers from ministers in the House, and are usually followed up by supplementary questions, putting the government in the spotlight—will only fuel such perception.
The Covid-19 pandemic is, without doubt, an extraordinary situation, but the fact is the government wants to convene Parliament because it has important legislative business that needs to be concluded; indeed, Parliament is to work on weekends as well in order to complete the work it needs to. If allowing Question Hour meant Parliament had to work for a few more days that could easily have been done. Another argument is that allowing the normal Question Hour requires more officials to be present in the building and so jeopardises social distancing measures. That is myopic since legislatures elsewhere in the world have made extensive use of digital technologies to minimise the requirement of human presence while conducting business as near normal as possible.
While there have been suspensions of the Question Hour in the past, as TMC MP Derek O’ Brien has pointed out, it was mostly in the instance of sessions called for special purposes, like the declaration of the Emergency in 1975 and imposition of president’s rule in certain states. Even in 1962, during the war with China, when the Winter Session was advanced, the Question Hour was suspended only after opposition lawmakers agreed to it; the government had initially proposed to simply limit the number of questions. However, in the present instance, the opposition lawmakers have not acquitted themselves well, either. While senior Congress leaders have criticised the decision, Congress lawmaker and leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, as per The Indian Express, has agreed that the Session is “being held in totally extraordinary circumstances” and that to “accommodate a normal day’s business in half a day is impossible”. This kind of confusion on whether or not the Question Hour is important is unfortunate.