Sunday, Jul 03, 2022 | Last Update : 05:18 PM IST

  Opinion   Columnists  01 Nov 2017  The perils of Aadhaar: Modi & Didi eye 2019

The perils of Aadhaar: Modi & Didi eye 2019

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata.
Published : Nov 1, 2017, 2:58 am IST
Updated : Nov 1, 2017, 2:58 am IST

Mamata Banerjee has inserted herself into the political space that Mr Modi created by his digitally created visions of a virtual reality.

West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: Twitter | PMO India)
 West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: Twitter | PMO India)

In the Game of Thrones playing out in the run-up to the 2019 general election, the digital route has been the choice for good governance for the BJP under Narendra Modi’s leadership. It has worked tirelessly to project its pro-poor and pro-people agenda. At every turn, the refrain has been the 70 years of failure to deliver on promises and how change has swept in after 2014 to redeem the poor, the marginalised and victims of bad governance.

West Bengal has butted in through an abortive attempt to convince the Supreme Court that the rush to digitally transform governance delivery is in reality a malware that is invading the government system through coercion and denial. Instructions setting a deadline to link Aadhaar to bank accounts, mobile connections and welfare schemes is at the root of arbitrary measures that exclude people living in poverty — both those below and above the poverty line.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s view that a state government can’t be a party to a case that challenges a law passed by Parliament, which is seen in some quarters as a snub or a rap on the knuckles, the point is that Mamata Banerjee has successfully changed the game from a fight between individuals and civil society into a full-blown political confrontation with the BJP. See her reaction — the Supreme Court, she claims, has “not rejected” her basic contention. That indicates the battle has begun.

By listing other states equally impacted by the mandatory linking of Aadhaar with social schemes, Ms Banerjee has co-opted a larger and expanding constituency of potential support. This puts her centrestage and directly in opposition to the Modi government.

The question is: Does this make her an Opposition icon who can challenge Mr Modi in the popularity race in the numerically overwhelming constituency of the poor, now in danger of losing benefits like rations and welfare payouts by the Centre as they don’t have Aadhaar? Reports of the tragic consequences of not being-Aadhaar linked emerged from Jharkhand recently after Santoshi Kumar death in Simdega. Her family couldn’t get rations as their card wasn’t “seeded”. In other states, visuals of people resorting to bizarre solutions to connect to the Internet to get their rations have emerged to indicate flaws in the system. The records of lower offtake in foodgrains where the system failed are evidence of the scale of failure.

Whether the Modi government calculated the political risk of going digital and making it mandatory is moot, because it clearly believed its election triumphs made the BJP invincible at a time when the principal Opposition party was in retreat under a shaky leadership and the wider Opposition was even weaker and fragmented. Both Mr Modi and the BJP said as much before and after the Uttar Pradesh polls and have reiterated that position ever since.

The party’s efforts at elbowing into West Bengal’s political arena is a case in point. With an immature organisation and very few elected representatives, it has projected itself as the alternative to Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress.

West Bengal’s petition may have been precipitate, but it was a pre-emptive strike. It certainly challenged the digitally engineered exclusion of the poor and Internet unconnected, however unintentional that was. It also raised a fundamental issue — what should be the purpose of governance?

Getting rid of the ghosts in the system, who siphoned away benefits targeted at the poor, is a serious challenge and digitisation may be the best solution; on paper, inside offices located in the nation’s capital. On the ground, the effects of such a transformation for the good can result in evils, including death and serious deprivation.

It highlights the gulf between the vision and reality. The case is a reminder of how the BJP has in the past veered off course by plugging the outcomes of its performance as “Shining India,” whereas the reality was different. Mr Modi kicked off with “Sabka saath, sabka vikas”, and ending corruption, distributing the collections to every citizen, but that led him in the direction of demonetisation, as well as bulldozing the rollout of GST, both of which have delivered severe shocks to the economy and the most vulnerable within it, who constitute the numerically larger proportion of the population.

Mamata Banerjee has inserted herself into the political space that Mr Modi created by his digitally created visions of a virtual reality.

Her capacity to attack and her experience make her a tough challenge. If she is as consistent and single minded as she was when she launched her career independent of the Congress, Mr Modi may find himself up against an unexpected adversary, who does not play by the rules, has skill and appetite to be populist and can talk up a storm. This is not to suggest that Ms Banerjee is a brilliant administrator or that her administration in West Bengal has been anywhere near ideal.

It has not.But Ms Banerjee, set on a demolition course, doesn’t need to answer for her own failures.

She needs to focus on the failures of her target and the impact of a digital transformation that is hurting the poorest, who happen to live in the states, where every government is taking the hit for Mr Modi’s failures which deny through exclusion benefits under various Centrally-sponsored schemes that are critical for keeping people alive. The idea that Aadhaar is the only true proof of identity is also being challenged. There are over half a dozen ways in which Indians can establish who they are and where they live. By putting Aadhaar first and making it an intrusive tool for keeping track on what Indians are up to is an expansion of a facilitation mechanism beyond the limits of reason.

The biometric card has become the measure of the digital divide and the political battlelines, with Mr Modi on one side and the states of the Union on the other.

Tags: narendra modi, mamata banerjee