When the Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation "suggested" that Parliamentarians should have their pay docked for disrupting Parliament, it received widespread media attention. The view has subsequently been endorsed by a young political leader from the ruling party as well, who has justified a pay cut for Parliamentarians who do not productively contribute in Parliament. While it is arguable whether agitating or "placarding" within the premises of the House falls within the scope of democratic duty, there is a larger question of double-speak here: If salaries or allowances of opposition Parliamentarians can be withheld for not productively contributing to Parliament, then should not the same principle be applied to ministers of the Cabinet?
Let us apply a simple, rule-of-thumb test to see how productive the contribution of the Union Government ministers has been of late. An easy assessment tool is to see how Cabinet ministers contribute to Question Hour -- the one hour during which they answer questions from other Members of Parliament. During this year's Budget session of Parliament, the Prime Minister was asked a total of five starred questions (ones which are answered orally) in the Lok Sabha. Of these, he himself answered none. All the responses were given by the minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office Dr Jitender Singh. Likewise, the Union Home Minister was asked 32 starred questions and, he too, answered none, leaving the task to ministers of state.
It is understandable that on the odd occasion or for an emergent reason, the minister of state could have been called to stand in for the Cabinet minister. But, having answered none of the questions put forth by fellow Parliamentarians in the entire session, can the senior-most ministers of the Government convince us that they have contributed productively to the functioning of Parliament? In contrast, the United Kingdom Parliament has an hour each week where the Prime Minister responds directly to questions raised by Parliamentarians.
"During this year's Budget session of Parliament, the Prime Minister was asked a total of five starred questions in the Lok Sabha. Of these, he himself answered none."
Fortunately for the Government, Question Hour is not the be-all and end-all of Parliamentary procedure. Unfortunately, their record in other aspects is shoddy as well.
Take for instance, during the previous session, the Government's statement on the attempted suicides by four athletes in Sports Authority of India complex. After initial reluctance, the Government gave in to opposition pressure and agreed to give a statement on the issue. On the day the statement was scheduled to be made in Rajya Sabha, the minister in-charge of Youth Affairs and Sports did not turn up and his statement was given by the minister for Skill Development. On another occasion, a discussion on the Ministry of Women and Child Development in Rajya Sabha had begun in August 2014. The reply to the discussion, given by the Cabinet Minister Maneka Gandhi was delivered in the same House after seven months and skipping an entire session of Parliament in November-December 2014. Even when "Matters of Urgent Public Importance" are raised in Parliament by MPs, the replies on any action taken take a not-so-urgent three months on average.
But then, didn't the previous Government(s) have flaws similar to what has been pointed out here? Certainly. What we must do to improve the Parliamentary system as a whole, and to make the Government and Parliamentarians more accountable to Parliament, calls for a much deeper, separate analysis. For now, what is clear is that the Government's argument on contributing productively to Parliament must start with its own ministers.