The most conspicuous politicalspectacle following the Aadhaar verdict was one where both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress were found indulging in what has been termed in the national capital’s political circles as “credit mongering”. Both the mainstream parties were claiming to have been vindicated by the verdict. The spectacle virtually stood on their head the conventions of parliamentary democracy on the roles of the government and the opposition. For long, these conventions have defined the government’s role as one that stipulates it to act in the national interest and for people’s welfare while the role of the opposition is to question the government of the day and hold it accountable to the public. But the immediate reactions to the verdict smudged these distinctions to such an extent that the government seemed to be playing the role of the opposition, while the opposition was seen to be seeking credit for its role as part of the ruling dispensation while the Aadhaar scheme was originally formulated.
BJP: good governance claim
Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP and Abhishek Manu Singhvi of the Congress represented the mixed-up dual play of the two parties and the war of words they unleashed. Addressing the media shortly after the Supreme Court delivered its 4:1 judgment, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Law Minister, stated that the verdict had upheld the government’s position that technology that enabled complete transparency was a tool to empower the poor.
He went on to add that though the concept of Aadhaar was launched during the earlier Congress rule, its version was totally “ niradhaar ” (baseless) as it had no legal backing. “It’s our government that has brought in a robust law with due regard to privacy and delivery, which the Supreme Court has upheld.” Ravi Shankar Prasad argued that the propounders of Aadhaar in the earlier government did not know how to employ it for the poor and the marginalised of the country as their concepts of a universal identity system were inspired by foreign values and methods. “They were not in tune with Indian situations. That is exactly why they could turn around and oppose Aadhaar when they were relegated to the opposition and even criticise the programme as Chairperson of the Standing Committee, which looked into the scheme. Now that the Supreme Court has accorded sanctity to the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government’s vision of Aadhaar, the Congress is shamelessly claiming that it is their victory.” Ravi Shankar Prasad contended that it had been proven that the implementation of Aadhaar by the NDA government had promoted good governance as it had helped enrol 122 crore out of 130 crore Indians in Aadhaar. This in turn has saved Rs.90,000 crore through the routing out of middlemen by facilitating direct transfers to the bank accounts of the poor through Aadhaar and Jan Dhan accounts, the Minister told mediapersons.
Singhvi’s exposition immediately after the verdict used similar arguments to justify the Congress’ role in conceiving, promoting and implementing Aadhaar. He said that the Congress welcomed the Supreme Court’s verdict as it “rightly appreciated brilliant idea… [of Aadhaar], protected its core, promoted its development and eliminated its flotsam and jetsam”. He also argued that the judgment was “a slap in the face of the BJP” as many observations of the judges were tantamount to “ripping off the Aadhaar Act”, which was passed by the Narendra Modi government in Parliament using questionable means, including the Money Bill provision. Singhvi pointed out that the track record of the NDA government in terms of the implementation of Aadhaar was marked by widespread data leak and misuse in the hands of private players. “The Supreme Court judgment has, in practical terms, given a directive to the government to set right these foibles and take up the implementation of Aadhaar with responsibility,” Singhvi said.
A close inspection of the processes through which the Aadhaar issue has reached the present stage—from its original initiation in December 2010 by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, when it moved the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, in Parliament—clearly exposes the claims of both the mainstream parties as hollow and unfounded. If anything, the record of both the parties on this issue is marked by glaring inconsistencies. The Congress, as Ravi Shankar Prasad pointed out, opposed the Aadhaar Act when in opposition, and the BJP too played a similar game, only in reverse. If the Congress used the position of the Chairperson of a Standing Committee to criticise Aadhaar, the BJP, too, had used the position of Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance to criticise Aadhaar.
The Chairperson of that Standing Committee, consisting of 31 members drawn from both the then ruling coalition and opposition, was former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. (Incidentally, Sinha is no longer with the BJP and is a vociferous critic of the Modi government’s economic policies.) In its report dated December 11, 2011, the committee observed that “prima facie the issue of unique identification number, which has been referred to as ‘Aadhaar number’... s riddled with serious lacunae and concern areas”. It went on to add that the “scheme has been conceptualised with no clarity of purpose and leaving many things to be sorted out during the course of its implementation and is being implemented in a directionless way with a lot of confusion. The scheme, which was initially meant for BPL [below poverty line] families, has been extended for all residents in India and to certain other persons. The Committee regrets to observe that despite the presence of serious difference of opinion within the government on the UID [unique identification] scheme, the scheme continues to be implemented in overbearing manner without regard to legalities and other social consequences.”
The then UPA government countered these trenchant observations with arguments very similar to the ones that are being advanced by the present BJP government. It contended that Aadhaar was a significant step to build a central identities data repository, which in turn would facilitate better management of the transfer of government funds to beneficiaries, especially subsidies, pensions and scholarships. It also argued that such transfer of government funds had been traditionally plagued by pilferage, diversion and duplication and that the UID scheme would once and for all settle these problems. The BJP, along with other parties in the opposition, especially the Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), questioned these claims. These parties specifically highlighted the infringement of privacy that would happen with the collection and storage of individual demographic and biometric data. Many non-governmental social organisations and activists also adopted this position, and all this finally took the form of a legal challenge through the cases in the Supreme Court. Once the BJP swept to power in the 2014 general election, it not only appropriated almost all the arguments that its predecessor in power had used to justify Aadhaar but added a few new ones from its ideological pocket. Central to these additions was the emphasis on national security and the claim that Aadhaar would strengthen security initiatives.
Manoeuvres on this plank went well with the “nationalism versus sedition” debate aggressively pursued by the Modi government. It was a convenient ploy to cover up the government’s glaring failure to fulfil its promises. The Aadhaar project came in handy because greater access to private information regarding individuals gives more teeth to the supposed drive to weed out sedition. It was this political and ideological plan that led to the Aadhaar Act, 2016 and its adoption through the Money Bill route that bypassed the Rajya Sabha.
Against this background, the scramble to claim credit for the scheme by the two major mainstream parties is not unexpected. No doubt, the lack of sustained focus and application from regional and smaller parties, barring the Left parties, to this vital issue has helped the BJP and the Congress to get away with their duplicitous roles.
The CPI(M) has reiterated its long-standing and principled opposition to the Aadhaar scheme and its implementation and announced its intention to continue the struggle. In a statement after the verdict, the party pointed out that lakhs of poor people were being denied universal rights in the name of non-authentication of Aadhaar: “This renders vulnerable crores of poor people whose existence is dependent upon the accessibility to welfare schemes. Unfortunately, the majority judgment of the Supreme Court continues to maintain Aadhaar as mandatory. The Supreme Court’s so-called safeguards will prove to be ineffective. The benefits for the poor and marginalised sections can only be reached if Aadhaar is explicitly made non-mandatory. The apex court has ruled that private companies cannot have access to data and Aadhaar is not required for bank accounts, mobile connections, admissions to educational institutions and entrance exams. While this may provide some protection to right to privacy, a major problem arises when this Central government has privatised and outsourced to private companies many government responsibilities. Such companies will have access to Aadhaar data. This is violative of the right to privacy—a Fundamental Right— ruled by the apex court itself.”
The party welcomed the minority judgment of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who has held that the passing of the Aadhaar legislation as a Money Bill is a fraud on the Constitution. There is little doubt that this principled opposition to Aadhaar is confined essentially to the Left stream of Indian politics. It remains to be seen whether more regional and smaller parties will rally round this point of view.