Why can't our Parliament have ‘PM’s Questions’ like UK House of Commons?

Rishi Sunak answered some hard questions after the G20 summit in New Delhi; the Opposition used to question India's first PM Jawaharlal Nehru; but scarcely anyone gets to ask PM Narendra Modi anything

British prime minister Rishi Sunak (left) with India's prime minister Narendra Modi (photo: Getty Images)
British prime minister Rishi Sunak (left) with India's prime minister Narendra Modi (photo: Getty Images)

AJ Prabal

British prime minister Rishi Sunak has so far this year appeared before the House of Commons 24 times to personally answer questions from the leader of the opposition and from various members of parliament on either side.

Prime Minister’s Question Time or PMQ, a unique British convention since 1961, ensures the British prime minister’s presence in parliament every Wednesday at noon, whenever the House is sitting. What's more, the answers must be unscripted, since questions are not submitted in advance.

Since 1997, PMQ allows the leader of the opposition to ask six questions and the leader of the third-largest party two questions. While the time allotted for PMQ is half an hour every Wednesday, the recordings on the website of the British parliament show that it often takes up much more time.

The PMQ is also televised live and livestreamed on the Net. Average viewership this year has hovered around 70,000–80,000, while the highest viewership was seen one week in July, exceeding 250,000.

Even upon his return from the G20 summit in New Delhi, Rishi Sunak had to face some uncomfortable questions from his MPs on 13 September (a Wednesday, it was).

“India takes Russian oil, and some now say that it refines that oil and sells the products into Europe, circumventing sanctions (imposed on trade with Russia). Did the prime minister have those conversations with Prime Minister Modi? If so, will India now change its behaviour?” asked a Conservative member from the prime minister’s own party, Rehman Chishti.

Rishi Sunak, like his predecessors, evidently knows a thing or two about how to speak diplomatically. He replied, “Our position is long-standing and consistent: we urge all countries to follow our lead, and the lead of others, in sanctioning Russia. Obviously, each country will approach that in its own way.”

Another Conservative member, Desmond Swayne, stood up to ask the prime minister: “In 2015, I went to Delhi to implement the coalition government’s decision to end development aid to India. That policy has not changed, has it?”

Sunak replied: “The policy did change and we stopped providing traditional development aid to India in 2015. Most UK funding is now in the form of business investments, which not only help India reduce carbon emissions and address climate change, but deliver jobs and opportunity for British companies here at home.”

Labour MP Barry Sheerman asked, rather caustically, “Many of us were very impressed by the close relationship that the (British) prime minister obviously has with Prime Minister Modi. When he had private time with Prime Minister Modi, did he ask him, first, why he has not condemned Russia for the invasion of Ukraine? Secondly, did he ask what Modi is doing to stop all the persecution of Muslims and Christians, with their mosques and churches being burnt, and with people being killed and persecuted?”

Sunak once again managed to parry the question and responded with: “The (Indian) prime minister and I discussed a range of issues. As I have said, we talk about human rights and defending democracy in all our international engagement, because those are values that we believe in very dearly.”

The prime minister then went on to say, “I held warm and productive discussions with Prime Minister Modi on strengthening our relationship in defence and technology and on a free trade deal between our nations.”

At this, Labour leader Keir Starmer pointed out that the UK–India free trade agreement, promised for Diwali last year (by Boris Johnson), hadn’t yet materialised, adding that Sunak’s global economic approach had “no strategy and no direction”.

This time Sunak’s response was, “We only need a deal that works for the British people and delivers on our priorities. That is why it is right not to rush these things, as he (Modi) would do, clearly. We do not put arbitrary deadlines on them. I take the time to make sure that they are right for the British people.”

The Congress MP and former union minister P. Chidambaram took to X (formerly Twitter) to recall the exchange in the British parliament.

“Please read the reports of the debate in the House of Commons," Chidambaram wrote, "when MPs questioned PM Rishi Sunak on his talks with PM Modi. Hard questions by the Opposition, prompt answers by the prime minister.

"It is not important who prevailed in the debate. What is important is that a debate took place in Parliament within hours of the PM's return to Britain. How I wish such a debate took place in India's Parliament!”

Chidambaram's wish takes on particular piquancy with a special session of the Indian parliament due to start on Monday, 18 September.

The first day of the special session has apparently been set aside to discuss India’s parliamentary journey during the last seven decades.

Can Members agree on initiating a similar PMQ in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha by turns?

The Opposition will not be able to ask Prime Minister Modi any questions this session, since there will be no question hour or zero hour, it has been declared.

Nor will they be able to ask whether the US president Joe Biden had indeed raised the issues of religious persecution and press freedom in India when the two leaders met at the G20 Summit.

But surely the special session can at least discuss how to improve the functioning of Parliament and the feasibility of introducing a PMQ in the Indian parliament?

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