Interview: Jairam Ramesh

‘Planned emasculation of the Rajya Sabha’

Print edition : April 15, 2016

Jairam Ramesh: "This is now Gujarat model in Parliament." Photo: Kamal Narang

Interview with Jairam Ramesh, Congress member of the Rajya Sabha and former Union Minister.

THE Aadhaar Bill was first introduced in December 2010 by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government but could not be legislated. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which was in the opposition then, was sceptical about the Bill. However, on March 12, the ruling NDA got the modified Aadhaar Bill, 2016, passed in Parliament through a voice vote and a brief debate. The Congress, unlike the Left parties, was not opposed to the Bill altogether but thought it was flawed on some counts. The Rajya Sabha pressed for amendments, which were of a recommendatory nature, as the Bill has been transmitted to the Upper House as a money Bill. Congress Member of Parliament and former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, who moved five amendments to the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, explained to Frontline what in his view was wrong with the way the NDA government dealt with the Aadhaar Bill. Excerpts.

Is there something fundamentally wrong in the way the Aadhaar Bill was transmitted from the Lok Sabha to the Rajya Sabha as a fait accompli?

Of course, there is. If the 2016 Bill is different from the one introduced in 2010, as claimed by the Finance Minister, why did he not refer it to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, which is the normal practice whenever Bills are introduced, although not since Narendra Modi assumed power.

Was the Aadhaar Bill a money Bill?

It was decidedly not a money Bill. I got a written opinion from experts such as K. Parasaran [Rajya Sabha member and former Attorney General of India]. The word “only” in Article 110 [of the Indian Constitution] is key. By the Finance Minister’s definition, almost every Bill can become a money Bill. It was a ploy to bypass the Rajya Sabha sending the Bill to a Select Committee.

Was there any confusion about what should be construed as a money Bill, considering that the Finance Minister erroneously described two Bills that were passed by the UPA, the Juvenile Justice Bill and the African Development Bank Bill, as money Bills to justify the passage of the Aadhaar Bill, a point that you mentioned in the Rajya Sabha? Did this reflect a cavalier attitude on the part of the government, especially in a matter as significant as Aadhaar, or was the government just in a hurry?

I was shocked when the Finance Minister claimed that the Juvenile Justice Bill, 1986, and the African Development Bank Bill, 1983, were pushed through as money Bills. I did extensive research for three days and finally provided authoritative evidence in my speech in the Rajya Sabha on March 16 to nail the lie. It was unacceptable, the Finance Minister spreading and repeat this canard—but then he would put [Joseph] Goebbels to shame.

What do you think was the real motive behind pushing for the legislation of the Bill in such a manner considering that the BJP was opposed to Aadhaar when it was in the opposition?

The Congress was not opposed to the idea of the use of Aadhaar as a way of establishing one’s identity when subsidies and entitlement payments are involved. I said it should be voluntary and Aadhaar cannot become an instrument of coercion or exclusion. There is no motive really—this is the real Prime Minister and Finance Minister at full display.

You moved amendments on behalf of your party and other members. What was it that necessitated the moving of such amendments considering that your party was the progenitor of the scheme?

I moved five amendments, which were passed by majority vote although the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] tried to force the opposition parties to walk out or abstain from voting. The spirit of these amendments was to maintain the non-coercive and voluntary nature of Aadhaar, prevent its misuse by the state in the name of “national security”, ensure that the Unique Identification Authority functions at all times and for all purposes under the control of, and is answerable to, Parliament, and make the law compatible with the privacy principles underlined in the Justice A.P. Shah Committee [2012] report. I was never a great fan of the 2010 law and this was well known even when I was a Minister, but Nandan Nilekani [who was chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India] was able to get what he wanted. I used to tell him frequently that he was being too disdainful of those raising questions from their experience in the field, but you know how techies are.

The Finance Minister dismissed the argument that a Supreme Court bench was looking into the issues of privacy, holding the view that Parliament can legislate on matters pending before courts. Should the government have taken this into account?

The government should have been more sensitive to this aspect but I would not have objected had the Bill been sent to the Standing Committee on Finance. Just because that committee is headed by a senior Congress MP [M. Veerappa Moily], the government is hell-bent on subverting it. Earlier, the Insolvency Bill was also not referred to the Select Committee.

The Finance Minister argued that the latest Bill contained strict provisions with regard to the right to privacy, which were not present in the UPA Bill. And that the information could be shared only under certain circumstances, say, national security, and only by a competent authority. The fact that “national security” is the only ground on which the competent authority can share information is common to both the 2010 and 2016 Bills.

I conceded that in some areas the 2016 Bill was a step forward compared with the 2010 Bill but there are some other areas where it was more problematic. I think the issue is not 2016 vs 2010 but whether the Bill we have in front of us has areas of grave concern or not. It undoubtedly has.

The terms used in the amendments moved by you such as “public safety” and “public emergency” as a replacement for national security were in the Finance Minister’s views too vague and elastic. Do you believe so?

Normally, I would not have objected to “national security”. But having seen how fast and loose this government is playing with the very idea of “national security”, I was worried. An environmental activist agitating against the opening of a coal mine in a forest area can very easily be said to be against “national security” if this Prime Minister and his Finance Minister have their way. The trust deficit as far as this government is concerned is very high and the way it deals with dissent and disagreement made me feel that “national security” is far too broad a category to go unchallenged.

What do you think are the overall implications of the passage of the Bill in this form?

This is a planned emasculation of the Rajya Sabha of which the Ministers of Finance, Defence, Human Resource Development, Railways, Urban Development and Parliamentary Affairs, Power and Coal, Rural Development, Petroleum, Health, Environment and Forests, among others are members. Thanks to the Emergency, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister flaunt their so-called democratic credentials. In reality, their DNA [biological make-up] is one of authoritarianism. This may be how the Goods and Services Tax Bill that will come after the Constitution Amendment Bill can also be classified as a money Bill. We know how Modi ran the legislature in Gujarat. This is now Gujarat model in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.

A Congress spokesperson was heard saying that all options were available, including that of approaching the court. Does that option still remain or will the Congress raise this issue politically?

Yes, all options are on the table. Incidentally, Rajeev Chandrashekhar, an independent MP who sits in the treasury benches, has officially submitted a number of amendments similar to mine. But he was persuaded by the Finance Minister not to move them.