There were chuckles amid embarrassment in the Lok Sabha a few days ago when it became obvious that a member did not recall having tabled a starred question. “Do you remember that you have asked a question” quizzed Sumitra Mahajan. “You don’t even remember you have asked something” observed the Speaker, indicating she did not share the amusement in the House. Considerable time and effort is utilised collecting the information required to answer a question, information that is required to be authentic.
A minister can land in trouble for presenting dubious information. That apart, the parliamentary secretariat undertakes a complex exercise to “select” the queries “starred” for oral replies every day — even though it is seldom that more than six or seven of them are dealt with on a given day — Question Hour is much too short for in-depth examination of as many as 20 queries. A starred question in their name is thus deemed a matter of pride for members. It is also a cause for some shame if, for any reason, a question goes a-begging; though it must be accepted that “shame” does not overly worry too many MPs today.
There is a more sinister side to queries that are treated casually by those who tabled them. Since every query involves a serious inquiry before a response is prepared, some unscrupulous members use the query as a weapon — or pressure tactic — against officials who do not “oblige” them. Another sinister aspect is that some questions are “commercially flavoured”, to secure a certain advantage to one firm over a rival. At times the queries are drafted by an “interested party” — not the member, who merely completes the formalities for tabling it. This was so very evident a few years ago when such rivalry assumed a political dimension. One former member of the Rajya Sabha kept asking so many questions on the pharmaceutical trade that the then Chairman, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, quipped he had become a “drug addict”. The remark did not go down well, but the Chairman&’s message “went home”. There are also some underhand practices involving the secretariat staff: a few years back eyebrows were raised when a particular member sought to project his parliamentary diligence by trumpeting having asked over 100 starred questions.
It would, possibly, be unfair to read dubious motives into what recently “tickled” the Lok Sabha — a BJP member from UP not recalling having asked a question on tea production. Yet his forgetfulness should serve as a reminder to the Ethics Committees of either House to be alert to the possibility of misuse of one of the legislature&’s most powerful correctives to keep the executive in check.