The monsoon session of Parliament began on Monday. Photo: NDTV
India's Parliament has set up a joint committee to examine the personal data protection bill Photo: NDTV

What happens when an elected representative lies in the Indian Parliament? There is an interesting philosophical thought experiment that goes something like this: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If no one is around to see, hear, touch or smell the tree, how could it be said to exist?”

Facts are elusive in today’s hyper-connected world of inter-webs. Falsehoods abound in the form of “fake news.” It is a strange phenomenon we are collectively trying to deal with. If a piece of information strengthens the inherent biases of the person, he or she is more likely to believe it to be true and share it with other people who hold the same biases.

But what happens when an elected representative lies in Parliament? Is that an extreme instance of spreading fake news too? Let’s change our thought experiment a bit and put it in context: “If an elected MP lies in Parliament and nobody calls him or her out on it, has he or she really misled the house and, subsequently, the whole country?”

Two instances that have occurred in the recent past where falsehoods were involved illustrate this. Indian Minister for Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said on February 7, while replying to a question, that “government has saved 570 billion rupees, which used to be pocketed by middlemen in pro-poor measures because of Aadhaar,” India’s unique digital identity program. The figure of 570 billion rupees (US$8.7 billion) has been debunked by multiple enterprising journalists, activists and data scientists. But it keeps getting bandied about like a statement of fact, even in Parliament.

In reality, the jury is still out on whether the methodology used to calculate these savings holds any ground, be it savings from the Public Distribution System by identifying of bogus ration cards, distribution of liquefied-petroleum-gas cylinders to customers, or savings incurred by preventing leakages in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. By repeating this unsubstantiated figure in Parliament, especially since nobody is challenging him, is Mr Prasad trying to turn this into a fact?

Take a second instance, where Finance Minister Arun Jaitley mentioned in Parliament, in March last year, that a lokpal (anti-corruption ombudsman) had not been appointed because the original Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act needed to be amended. “There is an amendment which is pending before the Standing Committee,” said Jaitley, “Let the Report of the Standing Committee come expeditiously. We will follow that…”

In reality, there is no such amendment pending, and no committee is considering anything related to a Lokpal Bill. This was, to put it plainly, a blatant lie. MP K C Venugopal subsequently filed a breach of privilege motion against Jaitley for misleading Parliament. The Speaker said she would consider it, but it’s still unclear whether there has been any follow-up on the issue. A review of the reports presented by the Committee of Privileges tells you that no action has been taken.

Privilege motion

A privilege motion stating that a particular member “misled the house” is the only option available to demand action against members who utter false statements in India’s Parliament. Simply put, a breach of privilege would involve lowering the dignity of the house by any person, including persons who are not members (for example, journalists who publish reports that damage the dignity of Parliament and/or a member of Parliament).

The motion is considered by the Speaker and she can choose to send it to the Privileges Committee, which in turn generates a report about the alleged offense. The relevant house (Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha) then has to pass a resolution regarding action to be taken against the person who was responsible for the breach of privilege.

In most cases, an MP is only reprimanded by the committee when the privilege motion is considered. In extreme cases, as with Indira Gandhi in 1978 or Subramanian Swamy in 1976, a member can even be expelled from the Parliament for this offense. This is in the rarest of rare and gravest of grave cases. So, in practice, when an MP lies in Parliament, it become extremely difficult to hold him or her accountable for it, especially since the Speaker has to make the primary call on whether any action should be initiated against an allegedly erring member.

Lying in Parliament and spreading falsehoods are, obviously, much more grave than, say, a WhatsApp forward. The media usually tend to report claims made in Parliament and take them at face value. There is an inherent assumption that a government minister will not dare to lie in his official capacity. That, unfortunately, is not the case. In today’s day and age, it has become vitally important to fact-check statements made in Parliament.

In short, a member of Parliament is as susceptible to falling for fake news as any other citizen. They use WhatsApp too, so they get a large number of misleading forwards as well. But it’s much more serious because the MP might use that fake news in Parliament and, if not called out, give it legitimacy. Perhaps the MP might do so unknowingly or perhaps it might be deliberate, but the fact remains that lies uttered in Parliament are profoundly more damaging.

Calling out a lie

Which brings us to the vital question: Should MPs spend more time calling out the outright lies of their colleagues? When a member is speaking in Parliament, it’s difficult to catch lies on the fly. Some solid research needs to be made before calling out a lie. Then there is the fact that even if a falsehood is called out and debunked later, media rarely carry the retractions. Before a statement is debunked, it would have already spread and become a part of mainstream conversation, which makes it even more important to debunk such lies inside the house, prominently, decisively and rapidly.

Perhaps political parties, both on the treasury and opposition benches, could give specific assignments to a few of their MPs to act as official fact-checkers. Their primary job would be to note the statements uttered in Parliament and call out the false ones whenever they get a chance. Because unlike lying elsewhere (in press conferences, while giving speeches etc), falsehoods uttered in Parliament are officially recorded.

Not only the media but MPs can use those records to prove beyond a doubt if someone is “misleading the Parliament.” That’s just a polite way of saying, “You lied to the people of India.”

Meghnad is a policy wonk and freelance journalist, is a former Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament fellow, and has worked extensively on the functioning of India's Parliament.

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