Centre's response

On the back foot

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad holding up his Aadhaar card while addressing a press conference on the Supreme Court’s judgment, in New Delhi on August 25. Photo: PTI

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. He made some perplexing statements on privacy in the Rajya Sabha during discussions on the Aadhaar Bill, 2016. Photo: Kamal Narang

The Supreme Court’s verdict seemed to take the wind out of the ruling dispensation’s sails on the issue of privacy, and BJP leaders tied themselves up in knots trying to prove that the judgment had not invalidated their position.

For once, the “social media warriors” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and associate organisations in the Sangh Parivar were found wanting in their designated role of defending the Narendra Modi government and its Ministers. This was one of the most palpable takeaways in the political context of the August 24 “right to privacy” judgment of the Supreme Court. To start with, the battalions of the saffron social media army were uncharacteristically silent as the judgment became public. When they were eventually forced to react, they tied themselves in knots.

The normal practice of these troll “warriors” is to start creating and propagating social media content within minutes of a major happening, implanting all the necessary spins, twists and yarns to promote the Modi government, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. In the process, they also run down political and organisational opponents, employing any abject stratagem. Key functionaries in this massive social media machinery have often claimed that they were able to dictate political and social narratives across India, and at times even internationally, in a matter of minutes after an occurrence.

But that was not to be on August 24. For hours on end, this machinery had no clue what to propagate or how. This obviously reflected the cluelessness of the BJP leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, in the face of an emphatic judgment that also entailed a resounding repudiation of the stance taken by the government in the case.

After the initial perplexity and silence, the BJP leadership got around to making a formal response through Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister for Information Technology. His effort in that media interaction was to assert that the Modi government had “consistently been of the view that the right to privacy should be a fundamental right”. In a show of astounding bravado, he sought to depict Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s arguments as mere incidents of courtroom banter. (In the proceedings of the case earlier this year, Rohatgi made statements such as “[the] Constitution makers did not intend to make right to privacy a fundamental right” and that the Indian people had no “right to absolute bodily integrity”.) Prasad told the media: “You are quoting one of the exchanges in the recourse. Go to London, go to Washington or come to Delhi. Whenever cases are argued, there is a lot of banter and a lot of exchanges. But ultimately, the core of the arguments of both sides is noted in the judgment.” Within minutes of this comment by Prasad, his bluff was called in the social media and several instances of the BJP and its Ministers vociferously arguing against “right to privacy as a fundamental right” were listed.

Among those who used social media to debunk Prasad’s contention were Gautam Bhatia, the prominent lawyer, Sitaram Yechury, general sectretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Kavita Krishnan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). The debunking was shared so extensively that it turned out into an effective social media campaign, one which the Hindutva cyberwarriors were unable to counter. A number of social and political organisations, including the Left parties, the Congress, the Swaraj Abhiyan, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), also advanced this campaign on political and mainstream media platforms.

Even the official spokespersons of the BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations failed to come up with cogent counter- arguments and understandably were missing from most television debates on the issue. Those who appeared in them made ludicrous spectacles of themselves. Television anchors who are in the habit of campaigning for the ruling dispensation gave fellowship to these piteous performers, who just betrayed their own bewilderment.

This campaign, and the multiple processes through which it moved forward, exposed the BJP’s duplicity on very many issues relating to the right to privacy question. Consider, for instance, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s speech in the Rajya Sabha in March 2016. It was full of perplexing statements: “Is privacy a fundamental right or not? The present Bill pre-supposes and is based on the premise and that it is too late in date to contend that privacy is not a fundamental right. So I do accept that privacy is probably a fundamental right.... The government pre-supposes privacy as a fundamental right, even though no such right exists in law. Privacy is not an absolute right. The Supreme Court is considering the privacy issue. It is subject to a restriction; it can be restricted by a procedure established by law.” Political leaders pointed out that Jaitley said all this while seeking to pass the Aadhaar Bill, 2016, virtually through the back door in the Rajya Sabha by presenting it as a Money Bill.

The move to introduce and pass the Aadhaar Bill, 2016, as a Money Bill was of a piece with other flagrant violations of democratic norms and legislative procedures by the BJP-led government. At the primary level, the move undermined the prestige and role of the Rajya Sabha, since the provisions of the Money Bill allowed the government to ignore proposed amendments. Equally importantly, the Aadhaar Bill, 2016, contained clauses that had the potential to curtail and restrict the rights of privacy of every citizen, directly impacting the rights to liberty and freedom of expression.

Incidentally, the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had for long opposed various aspects of the concept and implementation of the UID (unique identification number) in India, which was the most important objective of the Aadhaar Bill, 2016. That was when the BJP and the NDA were not ruling parties at the Centre. Their opposition was reflected in various forums, including in their representations in the Parliamentary Standing Committee. All that changed when the BJP came to power in 2014. Almost immediately, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet embarked on an aggressive mission to pass the Aadhaar Bill and link the UID to every single official transaction, ranging from banking to distributing benefits of the public distribution system.

The pretexts included better facilitation of the transfer of government funds to beneficiaries at the level of subsidies, pensions and scholarships and better management of the internal security machinery in the background of mounting terrorist threats. While the government advanced these points, Sangh Parivar affiliates such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and leaders like Pravin Togadia marked the UID and Aadhaar as instruments to create an Israel-like society and polity, where every citizen is mapped, even DNA-profiled and indoctrinated to become fierce “nationalist soldiers”.

In this context, the Supreme Court’s ruling was nothing short of a dampener for Modi and his team. The perplexed silence and the confusion that marked the eventual responses indicated a setback in administrative and political terms.

When the BJP leadership and the Sangh Parivar mounted a fightback, it was predictably on the lines of harking back to the Emergency and how the Congress had used it for the gravest attack on the right to privacy. Some Sangh Parivar outfits pointed out that it was the Congress that had originally mooted the idea of UID and Aadhaar. Still, these Sangh Parivar campaigners themselves admitted, sotto voce, that they were not able to overcome the political backlash caused by the court verdict and the political responses to it.

However, a large number of BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders also contended that the issue of privacy was not recognised as a political factor by the common people. They believed that the verdict on instant triple talaq, which was announced two days earlier, had a higher emotional quotient and greater popular reach. Evidently, these groups believe that a sustained campaign on triple talaq and related issues can be used by Hindutva organisations to further their anti-Muslim communal propaganda. This could well sustain the communal polarisation that these outfits have cumulatively generated and aggravated over the past five years, creating obvious political consequences.

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