I keep repeating myself but I think this is important enough to repeat a million times: The government is a body formed after YOU, the voter, has elected it. And as someone who gave them the power to govern, YOU have the complete right to ask questions and demand answers from your representatives and the government at large.
Questioning the government constantly and consistently will only make them work harder so that they can provide the right answers to you and hope that you re-elect them. That, my dear readers, is the beauty of democracy.
As you regulars know, I have a terrible habit of asking a lot of questions about what the government is up to. In an age where asking questions is considered to be a blatant opposition of the majority party, it is a bit difficult to exist as a curious individual. The government (both past and present) goes by the same basic mindset that teachers in our schools often apply.
Bablu: Mem, why does the Earth go round the sun?
Mem: Out of the course question. *Ignore*
Bablu: But mem, why does it not go in a triangle or a square?
Mem: Out of course! I told you like a hundred times Bablu! *ignore*
Bablu: But mem…
Mem: Shut up. Go stand in the corner facing the wall!
The teacher might not know the answer herself, but she will rarely ever admit it. It is a matter of personal honour, obviously. The teacher will actually start assuming that you are asking questions just to embarrass her in front of the class. Because you hate her! This mindset has been more or less carried forward in our political discourse today, yesterday and the day before that. It will be applied tomorrow and the day after:
Do not question the government because only those opposing the government do so.
Asking questions doesn’t automatically make you the opposition. It just means you care and are curious.
What has this got to do with Parliament? You see, there is a brilliant and very useful mechanism that allows any member to ask legit questions to the government. If the question is picked, then the government has to answer it too.
So this week, let us explore the possibilities of questioning our government *through* our elected representatives. As a bonus, I am going to hand you a super-weapon, dear citizen. I shall tell you HOW to make questions and send them to your MP!
Because you deserve some legit answers, of course.
Cows, cows everywhere
I am about to blow your minds by directing you towards what is, clearly, one of the biggest collection of government responses on various topics. And there are TWO of these!
Take the instance of a trending topic in India these days: Cow. The Lok Sabha search shows there are 31 questions on various aspects of the humble cow that were asked in the past three years to which the government responded.
This includes questions like “Developing Cancer Medicine from Cow Urine (Gomutra)” and “Cow Slaughter” (BTW, the cow slaughter question was asked in March 2015, much before this udder national fascination of the cow became mainstream). On the cow slaughter question, the government admitted that since cow protection is a state subject, it is up to the state governments to make laws preventing cow slaughter.
And as a bonus, they gave an annexure to tell everyone which states have banned slaughter and which haven’t! Here are the states that *don’t* have a cow slaughter law in place.
Want to go further back in time? Done.
Rajya Sabha search shows that there are 76 bovine related questions that have been asked since 1995 (that is how far back the digital database goes AFAIK).
Yes. There is a question on Mad Cow disease.
Believe me, when I say this, Members of Parliament can ask literally ANY question to the government about ANYTHING under the sky…or above it? An MP even asked a question on “Mysterious UFO sighting over Indo-China border”. And the government answered him with all seriousness!
And no, that is not the ONLY question on UFOs that was asked in Parliament. There are three more that were asked in Rajya Sabha. The best one, by far, is THIS:
This Rajkumar Dhoot is an insistent AF person because he asked ONE MORE question on UFOs!
And none other than the Prime Minister’s office gave a (curt) reply.
Parliamentary questions are just the BEST. Don’t you agree?
Starred or Unstarred?
Let us get into a bit of details about how this whole shabang works.
Every day during the session, the first hour of business in Lok Sabha is dedicated to MPs asking questions to the government ministers on a variety of topics. It’s called Question Hour. The questions are to be submitted 15 days in advance from the date when the members want them answered. These questions are selected by a random ballot procedure.
I repeat: they are randomly selected.
(Remember this fact. We’ll come back to this later. OK? OK.)
The first 20 questions of the day are answered on the floor of the house orally by ministers (aka Starred Questions), while 230 of those picked after that are answered in writing (aka Unstarred Questions). So a total of 250 questions are answered every day of the session in Lok Sabha. A member is allowed to file 10 questions a day. Even if we assume that half of Lok Sabha members file five questions a day that comes to around 1,300 questions a day (this is a conservative estimate).
That makes…well, a lot of questions on one day.
Basically, the government gets approximately 1,300 questions every day during Parliament session, of which 250 will be picked through a random ballot and the first 20 will be randomly picked questions and answered orally by the Minister who the question has been asked to.
(If you want the full effect of what happens during Question Hour in Parliament, see this. It’s a one-hour long…coz it’s question HOUR. Geddit?)
BONUS super-weapon: How to draft a question and send it to your MP
Step 1: Check out the Lok Sabha & Rajya Sabha website to see if the answer ALREADY EXISTS. Try different keywords and there is a chance someone might have already asked what you are thinking of.
Step 2: If the question doesn’t exist, well done, you have come up with something unique! Now just go through random questions that have been asked previously. One nifty little trick is to check the “Questions List” for the latest and greatest questions.
Step 3: Once you understand the format, draft the question and send it to your MP! Or tweet to them! Or snail mail them! The reason why I’m asking YOU to draft it in the proper format is because it saves the MP some work and he/she is more likely to put your question in Parliament that way. It’s just easier, you see?
Step 4: Your MP isn’t responding (or is a minister and can’t ask questions)? Well then send it to another! Send it to ten of them. Send it to a hundred. Someone *will* put it in Parliament, trust me on this. One nice trick to find out which MP is active for filing questions is to go to PRS Legislative Research’s nifty MP track and go through some profiles to see their performance.
(Fun Fact: Even Sachin Tendulkar has asked 22 questions.)
Side-note: Now there is a possibility that your MP might put in the question and it might not get selected in the random ballot. Or the question might get answered but the MP might forget to inform you. In which case, at the end of the next session, just do a keyword search on the Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha website. You will instantly find out if it was answered. If it was in the news recently, there is a high possibility there is a question on it.
IS THE WHOLE SYSTEM RIGGED?!
Now that I have told you how you can ask questions, let me take a small dump on your dreams. A little bit. Just a little. Not too much.
Remember when I told you that there is a random ballot procedure to select questions?
Well, then how did THIS happen?
Think about it: 1,300 questions out of which 250 are selected out of which 20 are answered on the floor of the house. What is the probability of a question on Tea coming up, followed immediately by a question on Covfefe… I mean, Coffee? That’s quite a big coincidence, don’t you think?
I even asked a question to see what is the probability of this happening. You’ll find the answer somewhere in the replies. Why don’t you give it a shot and try solving this maddening math problem too?
Well, at least Speaker Madam has a sense of humour.
My friend Shivam Singh did an excellent article in Huffington Post analysing a load of data on who asks questions and how many times they show up in the ‘random ballot list’. You should read the whole thing because it will blow your mind, but allow me to quote selectively here to give you a feel.
“Some MPs get much more than their fair share of questions while others struggle to get even a single starred question in the list.”
“Looking at questions day after day gives one the distinct feeling that something in the system is not right…”
(So much feels for this line. It’s true. Because we work in Parliament and look at the questions list literally every day, it’s hard not to notice something is off.)
“What one realizes after viewing Lok Sabha TV day in and day out is just how pointless some of the questions are. MPs have been putting in questions solely for the sake of growing their ranking in the list, and the entire question system designed for keeping the government accountable has turned into some sort of a game, where the only thing that matters is numbers.”
“The top few MPs have a selection rate above 75%, while my MP’s office which submits the maximum permissible number of questions every day (other than a maximum of four days that we miss every session) has a selection rate of 45.4%, which puts us at a very respectable 80th position, but far from the top. The story is similar across a lot of MPs offices who’ve put in the maximum permissible limit of questions and have a selection rate of around 50%.”
“At first glance itself, something in the list doesn’t seem right. After adding the MPs’ states and political parties, we found that eight MPs out of the top 10 and 12 out of the top 20 are from Maharashtra.”
(To read how this whole questions rigging thing unfolds, do read the piece.)
This is the actual situation with Questions in Parliament. It’s really weird that a supposedly random ballot system is throwing up identifiable patterns.
But but but, don’t lose hope, don’t lose faith. At the very least, MPs do get their questions answered in writing as unstarred questions. So in case you want some answers from the government and are willing to spend some time drafting questions, please send them off to MPs. Most of them are quite open to getting questions from the public and putting them in.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @Memeghnad