Question Hour: Humour to rancour

Question Hour: Humour to rancour

Pawan Kumar Bansal

HEARING Minister of Health Harsh Vardhan read out in extenso, not answering a parliamentary question, but accusing the questioner, Rahul Gandhi, of nothing short of blasphemy against the PM at a rally and seeking apology the moment he asked his question, flashed across my mind many instances of lively and informative Question Hour I sat through, beginning 1984.

It is a testing time. Fifteen questions seeking information from the government on subjects under its jurisdiction are selected through ballot. The rest, subject to a two-fold limit, viz. total number of 160 questions and not more than five for a member, are listed as Unstarred Questions. Supplementaries to the answer in response to a Starred Question may elicit a wide range of questions. Officers of the ministry prepare a note on all possible questions that might be asked and brief the minister concerned. A minister with good knowledge of the subject is well placed to take googlies while another may face a difficult time — to the merriment of members.

A serious question-answer session, at times, also throws up a jibe, greeted by hearty laughter and thumping of desks. There are occasions when an answer may enliven the atmosphere. Once, when a senior, feisty and portly member, known for his humour, asked the woman Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha on her first day of elevation what liberty he could take with her, pat came the reply, ‘The chair is too small for you to take any liberty.’ The House was in peals of laughter. In another case, a new minister of state, to his embarrassment but boisterous hilarity in the House, said ‘orgasm’ instead of ‘organism’. In one instance, the editing staff substituted the word ‘tinnitus’ (a hearing impairment) by the word ‘tetanus’ and ‘choes’ by ‘chaos’.

There are many such instances, though over the years such jovial occasions have become few and far between. In an environment of competitive politics, banter gives way to acrimony, with accusations flying across the benches, thanks to a morbid sense of humour which leads to misunderstanding and indignation. Remember Shashi Tharoor’s ‘cattle class’ tweet?

Ministers have a right to submit that a particular supplementary does not arise out of the main question, or that it does not seek information but is only an observation or suggestion for action. Subject to these exceptions, a minister cannot decline to answer a question.

However, a history of sorts was created in the Lok Sabha when the Minister for Health came armed, not to answer the question, but to blast the member who had to ask one. When Rahul Gandhi put his question, the minister took the easy course to read out an unrelated statement. This had the desired effect of throwing the House into turmoil. It catapulted his act to the front pages of newspapers, but the Lok Sabha suffered a blow where the minister got away with not answering a query. Parliament’s right to know was undoubtedly compromised.

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