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Question hour: Have opposition parties done well in Parliament?

www.livemint.com | April 11, 2024

Analysis reveals differences between the NDA and UPA in their use of a device designed to hold the government accountable

Question Hour (QH) is a powerful tool in the hands of the Legislature to question the Executive. In India, each Lok Sabha session begins with the QH from 11am till noon, in which parliamentarians
pose a range of questions for various ministers to answer on a range of policy matters. The questions need to be given around two weeks in advance, so the ministers who respond have adequate time to prepare their answers. Televising this hour can also mean significant electoral gains and losses. Despite the large amount of policy and political information it generates, the QH has not been subject to much scholarly or data-driven media scrutiny.

As the country approaches general elections to the next Lok Sabha, we thought it relevant to explore the data on all the ‘starred’ (oral) questions asked during the last four Lok Sabha terms and look for underlying patterns. Insofar as QH reflects legislative inquiries of the executive, such an analysis can reveal party dispositions and how queries are distributed across ministries. 

Note that QH is used by not just the opposition, but also the ruling party. This is because the latter may use it as an opportunity to highlight its strengths. To draw the essence of QH in advancing democratic ideals, however, we focus on questions from opposition parties and members.

We only look at unique questions—those asked by only one member and are non-supplementary. These account for 80%-plus of all oral questions. Interesting patterns emerge. In the last four Lok Sabhas, there were about 10,000 questions asked during QH: 2,466, 2,059, 2,864 and 2,347 respectively, with opposition parties asking 67%, 63%, 31% and 51% of these. Clearly, the National Democratic
Alliance (NDA) was a more ‘pronounced’ opposition than the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Specifically, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the NDA, asked 1,217 questions during the 2004-14 decade, when the UPA was in power at the Centre. The UPA leader, the Indian National Congress (INC), asked only 644 questions during 2014-24, the span in which the current BJP government has been in power. But this may simply be reflective of their respective strengths in the Lok Sabha. The BJP had an average of 127 seats during the period of 2004 to 2014, while the INC’s average from 2014 to
2024 was just 52.

Therefore, to effectively examine the opposition’s role, we need to adjust for total seats in opposition, and also go beyond the BJP-INC rivalry. A questions-per-seat calculation yields a measure for how effective the opposition has been in the context of asking questions. From the data, it is clear that the opposition was weakest in 2014-19, when its share of questions was less than its share of seats (its questions-per-seat was 0.815). This measure took the value of 1.15 and 1.21 during 2004-09 and 2009-14 respectively, and 1.37 in 2019-24, indicating strong opposition in the latest Lok Sabha. Note, however, that a decision to give the floor to a Member of Parliament (MP) is largely up to the Speaker of the House.

We can analyse this for each party. Adjusting for party size, we look at the number of ‘questions per MP’ from a party to see how each party fared during QH while in opposition. The graph above is instructive. The BJP, for instance, was a ‘quieter’ opposition during 2004-14 than the INC was in 2014-24. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the ‘loudest’ and its questioning has increased
over the years. The Telugu Desam Party and Shiv Sena were very strong during QH in 2004-09, but their questioning weakened in the next Lok Sabha (even though they remained strong overall). The
Biju Janata Dal has played a consistent role as an opposition party, although it has also quietened during later Lok Sabhas. The Samajwadi Party, while asking most questions in 2014-19, seems to have fizzled out on this front in 2019-24.
Since opposition parties use QH to scrutinize specific ministries, the data also reveals which of these faced the most opposition QH queries as well as trends in the share of questions directed at the ‘most scrutinized’ of them. The numbers show that as an opposition alliance, the NDA was especially focused on questioning ministries for the petroleum sector, human resource development, agriculture and commerce and industry under the ruling UPA coalition of 2004-14. Interestingly, when power changed hands in 2014, so did the direction of questions, which focused thereafter more on matters related to
health, finance and rural development. This data is also reflective of the nature of policies that may have been put in place by the respective ruling coalitions, and is therefore a useful signal of the changing
policy landscape at the national level.

There is a compelling case for extending this research to include state-level legislative assemblies, and perhaps making a metric to estimate a party’s opposition performance within state Houses of representation. Research on the Lok Sabha’s QH, though still in its infancy, holds critical importance in the national context. It informs people of the role that representatives have played in using a device designed to hold the Executive accountable and keep ministries on their toes. Questions posed on behalf of people lend dynamism to the business of legislation, which is crucial for policymaking. QH research will hopefully raise the sensitivity of parties to how voters may be appraising their performance.

Authors: Prof. Yugank Goyal, Faculty of Public Policy, and founder director of Centre for Knowledge Alternatives at FLAME University, and Shreyas Ramkumar, a student at FLAME University.

(Source:- https://www.livemint.com/opinion/online-views/question-hour-have-opposition-parties-done-well-in-parliament-11712846560573.html )