Studying the Indian Legislature: What does Question Hour Reveal?

Published date01 June 2014
Date01 June 2014
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-172YtadiU4DePG/input Militar
Artic y-Madr
Global Thr
asa-Mullah Complex
Studying the Indian Legislature:
Studies in Indian Politics
2(1) 1–19
What does Question Hour Reveal?
© 2014 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
Srikrishna Ayyangar
DOI: 10.1177/2321023014526023
Suraj Jacob
This article explores legislator behaviour during the Question Hour in the lower house of India’s
parliament (the Lok Sabha) over a 30-year period (1980–2009). It establishes that there is consider-
able variation in the volume of legislator activity, with some Members of Parliament (MPs) remaining
silent throughout their tenures (even as opposition MPs over full Lok Sabha terms), while others use
the Question Hour much more effectively. Surprisingly, the activity of government backbenchers is only
a little behind that of opposition MPs. The article constructs stylized facts regarding the relationship
of three sets of covariates with the number of parliamentary questions asked by legislators: personal
characteristics of MPs, legislative roles of MPs and the states represented by the MPs. The picture
which emerges is that there is a disjuncture between symbolic and substantive representation. Despite
increased symbolic representation, some groups—such as women and Scheduled Tribe MPs, but not
Scheduled Caste MPs—still participate below par. At the same time, Question Hour is used more
effectively by other groups—men and upper caste MPs, but also younger MPs and those with college
education. Further, we uncover some puzzling state patterns: MPs from Orissa, Gujarat and Maharashtra
seem to participate more than MPs from Punjab, Tamil Nadu and the Northeastern states.
Legislature, political parties, Question Hour, representation, India, sub nationalism
Although the Indian parliament represents the world’s largest democracy, legislative processes in India
have received far less scholarly attention than several other parliaments.1 Both the extant literature and
popular sentiment suggest that while India’s parliament is increasingly representative of the country’s
diverse democracy, this has not been accompanied by greater eff‌icacy in the institution’s deliberative
functions. However, this overall impression needs to be carefully examined. National Social Watch
reports that the top 15 participants during Question Hour received relatively low media coverage
(National Social Watch, 2009), suggesting that much more happens in parliament than meets the public
eye. Similarly, a Member of Parliament (MP) notes that one can witness two different parliaments in the
same day, ‘the first from 11am to 1pm, and the second in the afternoon where there are debates, where
there are discussions on various Bills, with scholarly and masterly speeches’ (quoted in Spary, 2010,
p. 344). Therefore, we need to separately examine the various legislative instruments that make up
Srikrishna Ayyangar, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India. E-mail:
Suraj Jacob, Justice Studies Department, James Madison University, Virginia, USA. E-mail:
India Quarterly, 66, 2 (2010): 133–149


Srikrishna Ayyangar and Suraj Jacob
the parliament before a conclusive summary can be composed. In this study, we explore one such
legislative instrument, the Question Hour, in the lower house of the Indian parliament (the Lok Sabha).
The Question Hour in the Lok Sabha is a particularly interesting legislative instrument of accountabil-
ity because it is the only open plenary where MPs are not formally subject to party whip or other stric-
tures. However, despite its importance in providing legislative oversight, it has not been systematically
studied previously.2 We assemble a data set of Question Hour activity spanning 30 years (1980–2009)
comprising several individual attributes of legislators to produce a comprehensive descriptive analysis
over a crucial period of Indian democracy. We hold the modest objective of exploring intuitive
covariates of the volume of legislative activity, as proxied by the number of questions asked by
legislators during Question Hour, hoping that this exploratory exercise will spur efforts to engage with
theory-building currently informed primarily by other legislatures.
Over a 30-year period (1980–2009), on average an MP asked 0.42 questions per session per day,
cumulating to over half a million questions over the 30-year period, indicating that a voluminous
amount of information is being sought from the national government. While there is a trend towards
fewer questions asked over time, this has been mild and uneven. Unsurprisingly, opposition MPs
ask more questions, although the difference (60 per cent more questions than governing party MPs)
is not as large as we expected. Further, there is considerable variation in the volume of activity across
MPs. A striking number was silent throughout their Lok Sabha terms; even among opposition MPs
who sat through full terms, 10 per cent asked no questions while the remaining 90 per cent averaged
217 questions.
We also parse legislative behaviour by different attributes. In keeping with popular perceptions, we
find that substantially fewer questions are asked by MPs from historically marginalized groups (women
and STs, but not SCs), and marginalized states (Northeastern states). MPs with college degrees engage
in more activity, but surprisingly this is not the case for those with law degrees. Question Hour activity
is positively correlated with age until the peak of around 50 years, after which the correlation turns nega-
tive. Expectedly, MPs with previous Lok Sabha experience are more active, but surprisingly previous
state legislative experience does not appear to matter. Previous ministerial experience dampens legisla-
tive activity even of opposition MPs, and this is all the more severe for those with previous high-status
(cabinet) ministerial experience. This suggests that MPs may use Question Hour to signal their abilities
to party selectorates, although it also appears wasteful that those with rich experience do not translate it
readily into oversight activity. Finally, the state-wise results throw up some intriguing patterns; for
instance, MPs from Orissa ask the most questions and MPs from Punjab ask the least questions. Taken
together, we believe that the rich set of descriptive results generated by the study offer an in-depth
perspective on an important arena of parliamentary procedure.
An implication of these f‌indings is that even if the Lok Sabha has become more inclusive, this has not
inevitably translated into equal participation; some groups still remain marginal. Further, to the extent
that the volume of questions is a proxy for the extent of legislative oversight, we show that some
groups—such as men, non-STs, MPs with prior legislative experience and MPs from certain states—
seem to engage in greater oversight than others. This suggests that the Lok Sabha’s inclusive representa-
tion has not translated into equal participation yet, and it seems clear that the Question Hour is a more
effective mechanism of accountability for some groups compared to others.
The remainder of this article is organized as follows: The next section surveys the literature on
representation and effectiveness in the Indian legislature. We then canvass the literature on legislative
Studies in Indian Politics, 2, 1 (2014): 1–19

Studying the Indian Legislature 3
behaviour to develop expectations regarding the relationship between parliamentary questions and
legislator attributes and roles in the Indian context. Following that, we move to the empirical sections.
We describe our data set on the Question Hour and legislator attributes. The analysis section uses
negative binomial regression models to estimate the effects of three sets of covariates on the volume
of Question Hour activity: personal attributes of MPs, state-wise effects and legislative roles of MPs.
In the concluding section, we take stock of our results and offer some thoughts on further study of the
Indian legislature.
Symbolic and Substantive Representation in the Indian Parliament
Increasing Representation. There is no gainsaying that the Lok Sabha has grown more inclusive of
previously marginalized social groups and parties (Arora, 1973; Dutta, 1969; Jhunjhunwala, 1975).
From the 1950s to the 1990s, Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) have maintained their
representation in proportion to their mandate under reservations (Jayal, 2006),3 and the Other Backward
Castes doubled their representation from 14.3 per cent in 1971 to 23.7 per cent in 1991. Representation
of Brahmins has been on a steady decline and reached a low of 7.6 per cent in 1991, although the share
of non-Brahmin upper castes remained high at around 33 per cent for the same period. 4However,
Muslims have been consistently under-represented with only about 5 per cent Lok Sabha representation
although they represent 12 per cent of the population, because the f‌irst-past-the-post system tends to
exclude minorities that are not geographically concentrated.
Although the number of women MPs continues to be shockingly low, their share more than doubled
from 4.4 per cent in 1952 to 9.9 per cent in 1999, and has not dropped below 7 per...

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