FOUR years ago, this clarion, ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’, reverberated from every electoral platform of a particular political party. Believing it to be democratic governance with minimum intervention by the State, 31 per cent electorate voted that party to power. But what has happened since then is large scale abuse of State power to push all kind of technologies while abandoning the cardinal principle of governance—participatory decision making and democratic implementation.
First it was the ‘destabilising demonetisation’ mainly to promote ‘Digital India’. High marketing pitches for this ‘technology’ were made by Prime Minister, Finance Minister, RBI and all public-sector banks. The State Bank of India took out two-front page colour jacket advertisements for mobile valet, Google Play and App store benefitting several MNCs and Banks as well as a myriad of electronic commerce companies. Typical is the case of Paytm, a junior partner of the Chinese MNC, Alibaba Group. This technology madness was palpable in the statement made by NITI Ayog CEO Amitabh Kant, claiming that with the adoption of technology and the kind of disruption happening in the digital payments space, ATM cards and Point of Service (PoS) would become redundant by 2020.He went on to add: “Due to demonetisation there is a huge push towards digital payments. India is the only country in the world with billion mobile connection and a billion biometric.”
This ‘billion biometric’ in the form of Aadhaar has been playing havoc in recent months and its misuse/abuse has become monumental. Something that was conceived as a purely voluntary identity card (ID) has become an instrument of monstrous coercion by the State making citizens to run around like headless chicken. Any criticism or exposure of the weaknesses of this ID is treated as crime and anti-national activity.
Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the agency that spearheads Aadhaar, drove home this point when it registered an FIR against Rachna Khaira, a reporter of The Tribune, in the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police. The reporter has been booked under IPC Sections 419 (punishment for cheating under impersonation), 420 (cheating), 468 (forgery), 471 (using a forged document) and also under sections of the IT Act and the Aadhaar Act. The offence is her expose of a massive Aadhaar fraud in which for a small sum of money made to a payment bank, an agent of a private group allegedly created a gateway to access details contained in an individual’s Aadhaar card.
Coming under strong and severe criticism, UIDAI spokesperson offered a specious argument that it was “duty-bound” to disclose all the details of the case and name everyone who is an active participant in the chain of the events leading to commission of the crime. According to him, UIDAI’s act of filing an FIR should not be viewed as targeting the media or the whistleblowers or ‘shooting the messenger.’ But he said nothing about the core question that is agitating the minds of everyone—how safe is Aadhaar and what is the agenda behind its mad pursuit by the powers-that-be?
Aadhaar, as is being pursued in India, is one of the most misconceived and autocratic project ever conceived and implemented. First and foremost, the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other subsidies, benefits and services) Act, 2016 (the ‘Aadhaar Act’) was itself a fraud on the people and Parliament since it was introduced and passed as a Money Bill without any discussion in the Lok Sabha and without referring it to the Rajya Sabha.
Once this deception was completed, Aadhaar was rammed down the throat of everyone despite a clear order of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on October 15, 2015: “We will also make it clear that the Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other.” This ‘final decision by the court’ is still pending but the State in total defiance has been spreading terror and panic to coerce the citizens to obtain Aadhaar card and link it to every conceivable purpose/service including public distribution system, old-age pension, NREGA, healthcare, LPG supply, disaster relief, bank account, PAN, mobile phones, land records, school/hospital admission and even birth and death certificates. Even infants are not spared!
This is being done despite the fact that millions of citizens will be denied their right to access many of these essential public services. It is already evident that making it compulsory in food distribution in some States has excluded many needy and deserving citizens without cause. Besides, Aadhaar allows for unprecedented surveillance of every citizen and massive invasion of privacy. These can be used by governments at different levels to target all kind of dissent. Because it enables data sharing even by private companies, it renders all citizens vulnerable to identity theft, fraud, cyber piracy, data breaches and other uses of their personal data with very serious security implications.
This is precisely what was exposed in The Tribune and the response of UIDAI was typical of an autocratic State—deny the message and shoot the messenger! For the government and its minions, Aadhaar is infallible because it is high-tech and anyone questioning it commits blasphemy and is anti-national.
It is the same mind-set that dominates Election Commission of India (ECI) when Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are being increasingly questioned. The integrity of EVMs has been challenged from the time they were introduced in 1999. It flared up in 2009 soon after UPA’s victory in the Parliamentary elections. The most articulated opposition to EVM came from those aligned to the BJP. Grounds on which EVMs were thrashed were: the whole world has discarded similar EVMs; use of EVM is unconstitutional and illegal; EVM software and hardware are not safe; EVMs are sitting ducks; insider fraud, storing and counting are concerns; ECI is clueless on technology and there is a trust deficit. But the ECI dismissed it all just by saying that the EVM technology is infallible.
When EVMs were challenged after the 2017 assembly elections in UP, Uttarakhand and Punjab ECI again dismissed them claiming infallibility. To drive home the point, the Commission challenged the political parties to prove that the EVM’s are tamperable and set the date as June 3, 2017. This came to be known as EVM ‘hackathon’. This much-hyped ‘challenge’ turned out to be a damp squib since ECI refused to give access code and share the memory and battery number of machines!
This time around ECI had already fortified itself with a stringent mandamus in favour of EVMs and gag order against its criticism from Uttarkhand High Court, which unilaterally certified that EVMs are not hackable and tamperable because they use some of the most sophisticated technological features. The gag order barred all political parties, individuals, media and even social media networks from criticising the use of EVMs. The Chief Election Commissioner claimed one-sided victory in the non-event and declared that the issue of tamperability “stands closed”. When criticism persisted, ECI moved the Government, seeking contempt powers to prosecute the dissenters. All these came handy when the issue cropped up again after the recent Gujarat elections to summarily discard all discordant voices using the shield of ‘infallibility’!
This false belief in the supremacy of this or that particular technology has become the new religion of the modern age. Demonetisation, that debilitated the Indian economy, was itself a State-driven project to establish the supremacy of a cashless digital technology and push it down the gullet of everyone.No one wants to pause to ponder this simple fact: After all, a technology is designed and devised by some clever human brain—and, it is possible for another human brain, more devious and more mendacious, to crack the code and manipulate the outcomes. This is what is happening in the case of Aadhaar and in all probability with the EVMs also. But all arguments invoking democracy and trans-parency falls on deaf ears.
To add fuel to fire, Institute for Development and Research in Banking, which is affiliated to the Reserve Bank of India has come out with the incriminating finding that an identity number issued to all Indians based on their biometric and demographic data, faces a potential threat from cyber criminals which can cripple the economy. “Thanks to Aadhaar, for the first time in the history of India, there is now a readily available single target for cyber criminals as well as India’s external enemies,” an October white paper authored by Dr S Ananth, adjunct faculty of the institute, stated.
What Ananth says further is ominous: “In a few years, attacking UIDAI data can potentially cripple Indian businesses and administration in ways that were inconceivable a few years ago. The loss to the economy and citizens in case of such an attack is bound to be incalculable.” In a desperate move to cover-up the ‘disaster’ called Aadhaar, UIDAI is introducing ‘virtual Aadhaar ID’ which can be computer-produced by the card holder and shelled out to whomsoever asking for it. Wonder whether this is a joke being played on the hapless people of India!
Why was ‘demonetisation’ that has taken Indian economy backwards at least by a decade resorted to? Why is the Aadhaar project, posing clear and present danger, being pursued with such paranoid passion? Why technology is considered infallible and government and ECI are sticking to EVMs when these do not comply with basic ‘democracy principles’? Answer is simple. To the paranoid ruling class, technology is power and therefore the ‘governance’ which they promised! Democracy and the common man’s interests are of no consequence.
Emergency of the 1970s was the saga of raw power-mongering and is considered as the darkest period for India’s democracy. This was how Civil Rights stalwart Rajni Kothari described the state-of-affairs during that period: “It was a State off-limits, a government that hijacked the whole edifice of the State, a ruling party and leader who in effect treated the State as their personal estate. It was the imposition of a highly concentrated apparatus of power on a fundamentally federal society and the turning over of this centralised apparatus for personal power and aggrandisement. It was one big swoop overtaking the whole country spreading a psychosis of fear and terror….” Things are not very different now!
The tragedy of democracy is that it often throws up leaders who do not believe in democratic governance. This seems to be the case now. The alternative they look for and push through is technology, like Aadhaar and EVM, which are hailed as infallible to facilitate replacement of democracy with autocracy. Some peripheral benefits flowing out of these technologies are touted as achievements of ‘governance’. But one thing is clear—this certainly is not democratic governance!
The writer is a former Army and IAS officer