This winter session of Parliament, in which the opposition and the government exhausted so much political capital over forcing and winning, respectively, a vote on foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail came to a rather quiet close this week. In the days after, as number crunchers conclude an audit — hours lost to adjournments, volume of legislation taken up, passed, etc — it is an opportune moment to inquire, what is it that members of Parliament do?
Or, as a former Labour member of Britain’s House of Commons poses it in a collection of writing, Doing Politics, what are MPs for? Walking through the steps of Tony Wright’s answer is instructive, not least because it casts in clearer relief the lack of disquiet this month over the crisis framed by the chairman of the Rajya Sabha when he threw his hands in the air and suggested the extreme step of rescheduling Question Hour or even abandoning it altogether. (As an indication of the magnitude of the abandonment already happening, according to an aggregation by PRS Legislative Research, in the winter session till December 18, the Lok Sabha had taken up only 41 of the 360 questions listed for oral answers, and the Rajya Sabha only 33.)
Wright’s question is posed amidst his larger ambition to present a defence of politics and politicians in these times when their absolutely pivotal role in underwriting basic liberties in a democracy is so glibly discounted. He notes that breaking down the job description of an MP to its bare essentials — of seeing to one’s constituents, voting in divisions, and serving on committees — does not quite capture the nature of the task. Neither, he adds, does a more thorough list of the functions an MP performs tabulated by a Commons committee: such as supporting her party in Parliament, in government or in opposition; representing constituents individually and as a constituency; holding the government to account by scrutinising its functioning, challenging it and nudging it in certain direction; initiating, scrutinising and giving final shape to legislation; shaping policy, on the floor of the House and in committees, and explaining her party’s position to the public.
What these objectively tabulated criteria miss is practically every MP’s constant activity in “campaigning to get re-elected”, in individual and party terms. The terms of this activity are more difficult to determine or, indeed, to appraise, but this is the KRA that matters to most: “What MPs have in common is that they are members of a professional political class, paid for out of public funds to sustain the national and local political battle.”
Within the legislature, moreover, MPs can be divided into the “when” people and the “why” people. The “when” people, says Wright, are focused on moving up, into office, nearer the front benches in allotment of seats in the House, into key parliamentary committees. This ambition is essential to a healthy House, because in a parliamentary system MPs are indispensable for “providing the rather shallow pool of people from who governments have to be chosen”.
The “why” people, on the other hand, see their parliamentary task as demanding answers of the executive on the reasons behind their actions and policies. Together, the two types denote the essential balance that nourishes a healthy democracy — between “those who think that politics is about the exercise of power and those who think that politics is about the control of the exercise of power”.
For those of us watching from the outside, this is a useful reminder to understand the inherently, and beneficially, political nature of all engagement in Parliament and to therefore resist the inclination to seek Parliament as an isolation chamber sanitised of MPs’ political agendas.
The parliamentary question is a key instrument in nurturing the “why” people. And the increasingly casual abandonment of Question Hour by adjournments or to business and discussion deemed to be more urgent on the day is an indicator of its low priority for far too many MPs. Certainly, Parliament as an institution has been criticised these past years for different ways in which Question Hour is undermined: by the absence of MPs who had posted questions to be answered by the concerned minister, on occasion by the absence of the minister himself without any notice, by disruptions. To get the process moving, various reforms have been attempted — in the Rajya Sabha, presence of the MP who posted the question is no longer requisite for the minister to carry on with giving the answer; for a while Question Hour was rescheduled from the opening hour (11 am to noon) to later in the afternoon on the presumption that MPs are prone to vent concerns on the mind the moment they show up in Parliament, but the change did little to revive Question Hour, and it was reverted to its old time slot; there is a limit to the number of supplementaries that can be asked on each question, so that more of the 20 starred questions can be taken up in the allotted hour.
Hamid Ansari’s outburst of exasperation will hopefully focus bipartisan attention on breathing fresh life into Question Hour. Perhaps by spicing up the possibilities by adopting practices like Prime Minister’s Questions. It may be just the high-stakes incremental change that could clear space for the “why” people.