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Mainstream, VOL LX No 2, New Delhi, January 1, 2022

Making Mockery of the electoral process and turning mandate irrelevant | Arun Srivastava

Tuesday 28 December 2021

by Arun Srivastava

Move to address long-pending electoral reforms like having a common electoral roll for the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and local government bodies (panchayats or municipal) could be appreciated but there is absolutely dearth of justifiable rationale to link electoral rolls with Aadhaar.

Ever since Narendra Modi has become the prime minister of the country, the RSS has adopted the proactive stance to subvert the executive and constitutional functioning. RSS and Modi have given a free hand to the bureaucracy to completely shatter the democratic order. The idea to link electoral ID with Aadhaar was first mooted by the ECI in 2015 but work on it had to be stopped when the Supreme Court ruled that Aadhaar cannot be used except voluntarily for beneficiary-oriented schemes.

The Supreme Court is yet to rescind its earlier order, Modi and his bureaucrats showing its utter contemp to the apex court’s order have enacted a law linking electoral ID with Aadhaar. Modi and his government did not think it nice and decent to come out with the logical explanation why it was necessary to link ID with the Aadhaar. The only clarification that the Modi government has placed the public domain is the linking will help in identifying duplicate voters, something that ECI has been desperately attempting for years.

The bureaucrats and the Modi government have been resorting to lies to rationalise their action. It bisn said that ECI has been using various “de-duplication” software with limited success. In fact the bare truth is it was for the first time mooted in 2015 by Modi. If the earlier Congress governmenets would have raised this issue, certainky by now the issue of implementing the voluntary linking should have been discussed by the people and social bodies and organisation as is being done this time.

Total population of India in 2021 is around 137 crores. Out of this around 86 crores are enrolled electorates. Since the linking is also a device to ascertain the national identity, what will be the faten of the rest 51 crores people which also include the youngsters and those whobare yet to be enrolled as voters? Three reforms;common electoral rolls for Vidhan Sabha and panchayat elections, extending the qualifying date for registration of young new voters, and linking of Aadhaar with electoral rolls; were taken up by the Modi government.

On Tuesday, the Rajya Sabha passed the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill that seeks to link the electoral rolls with the Aadhaar database. The Lok Sabha had passed the Bill on Monday. Narendra Modi’s move to link electoral roll with Aadhaar has got enough ominous intentions.

Voter ID-Aadhaar linkage impends to disenfranchise marginalised populations. This law will sabotage and tilt the electoral process and results. The worst sufferer would be the porr and working class who constitute 80npercent of the population. These people are of migrant character. They move around in search of job and food. Aadhaar is directly used for disbursal of welfare and direct benefit transfers, linking it with voter ID may provide a direct method for the government to influence and manipulate voters. The incredible haste and manner in which the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was adopted by the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha turning into a law,without putting up it in public domain and without any discussion whatsoever hs really been disconcerting. The process and the procedure adopted by the Modi government not only undermined the sancity and authority of the Parliament it also made it clear that Modi and his government have the interest of the rich and capoitalistb in their mind

There is no denying the fact that linking of the voter IDs with Aadhaar, and the deficiency of transparency and privacy of electoral rolls would jeopardise the democratic institution of the country. Aadhaar is not meant to be a citizenship proof but only a digital identity for all residents. It is depressing that the Modi government has been making mockery of the citizenship. At a time when the Modi government isb hell bent on implemeneting CAA and NRC, residence of 182 days can make even a non-citizen eligible for an Aadhaar ID. Aadhaar was only meant to be an identity proof but Modi is turning into address proof.

In 1990 when the scheme for electoral ID was launched it was envisaged that it would serve the purpose of the national identity card. In 2004 the then home minister L K Advani had come out with the proposal to issue national identity card. Some preliminary surveyes were conductd. But the move was dropped half way. If the BJP and RSS leaders were really interested to have national identity card they could have turned the election ID card into national identity card. During Advani’s timen the volunteers visiting the houses had sough for all the information, even the most minor. No one knows what happened to the information coloected at that time.

While Aadhaar enrolment is based on production of existing documents and the “introducer system”, voter enrolments involve physical verification and “house visits” by a registration officer or representative. Modi and hisn bureacrats ought to remember that even the Supreme Court accepted the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI) claims on the integrity of the Aadhaar database at face value without any scrutiny. Using Aadhaar to clean the electoral rolls is fraught with the risk of disenfranchisement, especially of the marginalised communities. If the reports nare to be believed names of nearly 4 crore electorates have been deleted without proper verification in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana due to EPIC-Aadhaar linkage.

It is shocking how the Election Commission of India could, a constitutional body should surrender its constitutional authority and right to the executive, precisely the bureaucracy? Aadhaar is a government instrument and UIDAI is under government control. It is inappropriate having potential conflict of interest to use Aadhaar for electoral rolls. Linking it with the voter ID will open up avenues for profiling and targeting of voters.

While adopting the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 the government had clarified that linking the two will help identify duplicate voters, purge the electoral rolls of multiple enrolments, and help put an end to the practice of fraudulent voting. This argument is absurd. With an electoral ID card, the people would be able to assert their nationality and also can vote at the same place. Since it is a photo identity card the chances of duplication is absolutely utopian. Law Minister Kiren Rijiju stated in Parliament that “it is voluntary… not compulsory or mandatory” — then it is debatable to what extent this will be effective in weeding out the duplicate enrolment.

The Cabinet decision about the eligibility date of new voters is also ambiguous. According to Section 14(b) of the Representation of People Act of 1950, only those who have turned 18 on or before January 1 of the year are to be registered. This implies that all those who turn 18 between January 2 and December 31 of a year must wait till the next year. This technicality results in the exclusion of a large section of 18-year-olds.

It is worth mentioning that there are no publicly available audit reports either on the efficacy of Aadhaar deduplication or on the authenticity of the Aadhaar database. Even the Supreme Court accepted the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI) claims on the integrity of the Aadhaar database at face value without any scrutiny. In this how could Modin and his government rely on the Aadhaar and treat it as gospel truth. The Modi government has been out to destroy the ethical stature and functioning of ECI and also turn Aadhaar a defunct body. It is the responsibility of the ECI to ensure that not only are the electoral processes clean, but also that they appear to be clean.

This linking exercise has an omnous intentions. Modi intends to collect the fundamental information about the peop0le and cit9izens of the country. His Peagusus drive was a well designed part of this functioning. Modi does not believe the countrymen, especially the Muslims. Since the Lok Sabha election will take place in 2024, he intends to get ready before the D-day. As experts have pointed out, there is an inherent tension between maintaining privacy and shoring up the integrity of electoral rolls.

His intentions are indeed dubious is manifest in the procedure adopted by him to clear the bill in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha within just 20 minutes. The fact is Narendra Modi government’s conduct in Parliament was “not good for democracy”, accusing the Centre of violating rules and tradition, disallowing debate on key issues and passing bills without due process. Modi railroad the bill that allows Aadhaar-linking of the electoral rolls. Significantly the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, said: “The UPA has 68 MPs while the other Opposition parties have 50 MPs. There are two Independents, making the Opposition total 120. The NDA has 118. The government was afraid of voting in the House and hence created an artificial majority by suspending the MPs.”

The government isn resorting to lies and falsehood when it said that linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls will solve the problem of multiple enrolments of the same person at different places. It obviously implied that government has been maligning photo ID card. With photo ID card in vogue ho0w anyone can cast multifold. The wicked and immoral intrensions of Modi could be understood from the simple fact that his go0vernmenet even did not agree to send the bill to Parliamentary Standing Committee.

In March 2015, the Election Commission had started a National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme that sought to link Aadhaar to voter IDs, in a bid to delete duplicated names. The EC said in a release in May 2015: “Under this programme, beside some other activities, linking and authentication of EPIC data of electors with Aadhaar data is also being done…” But did not advocate linking of Aadhaar with ID card.

Barely a month back in utter violation of the constitutional norms and provisions, the principal secretary of the PMO had summoned all the three election commissioners at a meeting. This dictate simply undermined the authority of a constitutional body. They would not have dared to resort to this action, if Modi has a firm grip on bureaucracy. Otherway also Modi might have been trying to rule the country through his pet bureaucrats.

Reacting to the controversy the law ministry said the Prime Minister’s Office had written to the cabinet secretary, the law secretary and the legislative secretary for a meeting on November 16 on common electoral rolls. It also “clarified” that the letter was for “Secretary or a representative of the CEC familiar with the subject” to attend the meeting. The law ministry tried to hide the fact that the Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, P K Mishra, would “chair a meeting” and “expects CEC” to be present.

Nevertheless the Election Commissioners have been primarily responsible for creation of this situation. If earlier they had not bowed to the wishes to Modi and his mandarins, the PMO would not have dared to summon them at the meet. People rightly have come to form the notion that as earlier, during Bengal assembky election, the ECI was directed to take care of the BJP candidates in UP assembly election and also prepare for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Election Commission of India has the necessary expertise and mandate regarding Electoral roll and does not need any advice from the PMO. By sending this letter Modi’s office interfered in ECI’s domain and lowered its constitutional authority and status.

On Friday, S.Y. Quraishi, a former CEC, said there was “no such thing as an informal meeting” of the executive with the poll panel and that any meeting should have been held on the basis of an agenda made public beforehand.

He points out that this action of Modi’s PMO was in violation of the constitutional spirit. He recalls how on June 27, 2006, he received a call from Pulok Chatterji, the Principal Secretary to the then PM, Manmohan Singh, informing me that he was being considered for appointment as EC. The reason for aking Quraishi was made clear by Chatterji “I will have to resign from the IAS. It was due to the important constitutional principle of distancing from the executive/government. A wall was built between me and the PM who had appointed me. As secretary to the Government of India, I was at the mercy of the PM, but as the EC, I was independent, neutral and distant from him. There was no question of his calling/summoning me to see him or with any request, let alone any direction or instruction.”

It is absolutely clear that full vbench of ECI must not have summoned by the PMO at the instructions of Modi. For experts this summoning might have been illegal and violation of the Constitution and also manifestation of assertion of the extra constitutional authority of the bureaucracy. But for butreaucrats and Modi this was completely legal and right. According to the law and practice even the PM cannot call the ECI without public knowledge of the meeting and what transpired in it. But under the rule of BJP every thing is possible as the bureaucracy enjoying the patronage of Modi rules the country.

CEC Seshan gave new force to the EC’s role of upholding the rules of the game, including the Model Code of Conduct. Similarly, the equilibrium between institutions has not remained the same. In fact, ever since a single party won a majority at the Centre after over two decades in 2014, there has been mounting pressure on unelected institutions to bend and bow to the wishes of the politicians and abide by their “mandate”.

AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi said if the Bill becomes an Act, the government would be able to use voter identity details for “disenfranchising some people and profile the citizens”. “This Bill is outside the legislative competence of this House… The linking of voter ID with Aadhaar violates the fundamental right to privacy defined in Puttaswamy (case),” Owaisi said.

Rijiju said, “The present legal provisions have some disparity and some shortcomings, and to remove the same, the government, in consultation with the Election Commission and incorporating recommendations made by the Election Commission, we have brought these amendments.” Shockingly Rijiju did not think it proper to seek the opinion of the opposition members on the shortconings. There isn no denying that Modi has made the mockery of the parliamentary practice and procedure.One of the concerns is whether the Bill’s implementation will be successful if the linkage is not compulsory.

The 1950 Act provides that a person may apply to the electoral registration officer for inclusion of his name. The Bill says the electoral registration officer may require a person to furnish his Aadhaar number for establishing their identity. If his name is already in the electoral roll, then the Aadhaar number may be required for authentication of entries in the roll, but he will not be denied inclusion in the electoral roll or have his name deleted, if he is unable to show his Aadhaar card. Signbificantly Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said in Lok Sabha, “If you are in a position asking for Aadhaar for voters, all you are getting is a document that reflects residence, not citizenship. You’re potentially giving the vote to non-citizens.”

Aadhaar is not proof of citizenship and it is said so very clearly in the Aadhaar Act. We know that voting can only be done by citizens. It isntough to understand how this will prevent non-citizens from voting because non-citizens can have an Aadhar card. The goal of preventing non-citizens from voting will not be solved with Aadhaar. Meanwhile the CPI(M) holds that the Bill could violate secrecy of the vote undermining the principle of secret ballots, and the fundamental right to privacy of the voter.

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