History can be told through stories. So can politics. If you wish to explain the politics of India through a story, you need go no further than the story of Aadhaar.
Aadhaar is a unique identification number that is intended to be given to all Indian residents. The idea is not novel or unprecedented. India was a latecomer to the idea of a unique identity number. I cannot but recall the fierce opposition to the idea. Ms Meenakshi Lekhi called Aadhaar “a fraud”, Mr Prakash Javadekar described it as “a game played on the poor”, and Mr Ananth Kumar said it was “something to be ashamed of”. Now, the BJP is the champion of Aadhaar and has piloted a controversial Bill through both Houses of Parliament!
That success, however, has come at a price.
The UIDAI story
Let me tell the story from the beginning. Governments transfer money to citizens for many reasons — student scholarships, old age pensions, subsidy for LPG cylinders etc. Such transfers are plagued by the problems of diversion, duplication and falsification, and a large part of the transfers does not reach the genuine beneficiaries. How do we get over these problems?
The answer was to ‘identify’ each beneficiary by a ‘unique’ number linked to minimum biometric data. Unique number schemes were not new to the country: the income-tax department has PAN for each assessee and a credit card bears a unique number for the card holder. In 2009, the UPA government decided to introduce Aadhaar. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was established by an executive order and Mr Nandan Nilekani was roped in to steer the programme and the Authority.
Mr Nilekani brought his tremendous knowledge of technology and proven entrepreneurship to the UIDAI. What might have otherwise turned into another lackadaisical department of the government became a trailblazer on how to design and implement a transformational scheme. After proving the technology and running successful pilots, the UIDAI began enrolling people and issuing Aadhaar in September 2010.
Opposition to bill
In order to give the UIDAI a statutory basis, the National Identification Authority of India Bill was introduced in December 2010. It ran into trouble in the Standing Committee on Finance chaired by the formidable Mr Yashwant Sinha, a leading light of the BJP. The Bill languished in Parliament for three years.
Aadhaar faced opposition from social activists who had genuine concerns about exclusion of the un-enrolled and about privacy. In 2013, the Supreme Court, by an interim order, ruled that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory to receive benefits. In 2015, the case was referred to a larger bench to decide the question whether Aadhaar infringed the right to privacy.
Meanwhile, the UIDAI forged ahead with enrolment and issuing Aadhaar. By March 2014, it had issued unique numbers to 60 crore people (now 99 crore), a record unequalled anywhere in the world. Besides, 24 crore new bank accounts had been opened under the Financial Inclusion programme. A revolution was underway.
On January 1, 2013, the UPA government launched the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme under which monetary benefits would be transferred directly to the beneficiaries through an Aadhaar-enabled platform. The scheme was rolled out with easy and simple transfers. The big push came when it was mandated that the subsidy for LPG cylinders must be credited directly to Aadhaar-seeded bank accounts.
Right view, wrong turn
Fast forward to 2016. The BJP had a change of heart on Aadhaar as on many other matters that it had trashed when it was in the Opposition. The government introduced the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016. In the ordinary course, the Bill ought have gone to the Standing Committee; the report of the Committee discussed; amendments, if any, made; and the Bill passed by both Houses of Parliament. The ends of the Bill would have been met.
But the Government had other plans — and other means. The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha as a money Bill, a reference to the Standing Committee was declined, and the Bill was passed on March 11, 2016. The Rajya Sabha was treated with disdain. Nevertheless, the Rajya Sabha made five amendments. It was late afternoon on March 16. In the evening, the Lok Sabha, sitting in the extended hours, overrode the amendments and passed the Bill in its original form, and the government claimed a legislative victory!
What was the price of the ‘victory’?
1. The Bill was not a money Bill under Article 110 of the Constitution because it did not “contain ONLY provisions” dealing with the matters enumerated in that Article. The Speaker’s decision certifying it as a money Bill was plainly wrong.
2. The Rajya Sabha was snubbed. It seems that the government depends on the strength of its numbers rather than on the strength of its arguments.
3. The government faces the risk of an adverse verdict. The law could be struck down on the grounds of violation of fundamental rights and invasion of privacy.
4. The government has incurred the wrath of social activists who feel increasingly alienated. They will carry the debate to the people and doubts and concerns will continue to be aired, casting a shadow on a transformational reform.
The ends were good, the means were bad, and the price was too high.