Linking Aadhaar with Voter ID: “Curation or Disenfranchisement”
IN the current context, we see the state mutating itself into a form that exerts greater control on the civilian population through surveillance infrastructure & mechanisms, which by the day is becoming a necessary condition to suit itself to serve the interests and needs of the big capital, paving the way for maximisation of profits for the market forces. The Aadhaar project is the lynchpin to crackdown on welfare measures and a necessary condition to carry forward the devastating reforms in the neo-liberal phase. The recent Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 that was passed in haste in the winter session, facilitates amendment to the Representation of People’s Act. It should be seen as a step towards implementing online-based remote e-voting, for which the use of Aadhaar will be the primary identity.
Since its inception, the linking of Aadhaar with one’s voter ID has been primarily to build a biometric dependent voting system. The tall claim made to support this change is to fight “fraud and duplicates” in the electoral rolls and facilitate anyone voting from any place. It will be of utmost importance to see how it has been used in practice. In places where it was used — done by the mashing of electors photo identity card(EPIC) data with surveillance databases — it facilitated a selective removal of voters from the lists.
THE CASE OF ANDHRA AND TELANGANA
In 2014, the Election Commission of India (ECI) conducted two pilot programmes on linking voter identity with Aadhaar in the districts of Nizamabad and Hyderabad. Using the claim of effectiveness in removing duplicate voters, the ECI then called for a national consultation on Aadhaar and voter ID linking, organised in Hyderabad in February 2015. The ECI launched the national electoral roll purification and authentication programme (NERPAP) on April 1, 2015, set a target to complete by August 31, 2015. After a Supreme Court of India order on August 11, 2015, it was announced that this NERPAP would be shut down. But as Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have been early adopters of this programme since 2014, both states have nearly completed linking Aadhaar and voter id for all residents. Though the composite state of Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated in 2014, there was only one office of chief electoral officer (CEO) Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh as the bifurcation procedure was not yet complete in 2015. This linked data was used for curating the electoral rolls subsequently despite the court order.
The methodology followed by the ECI to find duplicate voters using Aadhaar is unknown to the general public. Nor is the information available in the public domain. Several applications under the Right to Information Act to the chief electoral officer(CEO), Telangana, asking for this information have been in vain. In 2018, the ECI wrote back to the CEOs asking for the methodology used in NERPAP for Aadhaar data collection after questions were raised about the ECI collecting Aadhaar data without the consent of voters. In a letter (No. 1471/Elecs.B/A1/2018-3, April 25, 2018), from the CEO Andhra Pradesh (then for Telangana and Andhra Pradesh) to the ECI, it is clear that the state resident data hub (SRDH) application of the government of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh was used to curate electoral rolls.
The SRDH, in general, has data on residents of the state, which is supplied by the unique identification authority of India (UIDAI) or collected further by the state governments. The UIDAI initially created the SRDH to give states information on residents — similar to the Aadhaar database without biometrics. With multiple data breaches and leaks, the security of data, including biometrics with UIDAI, is questionable at best. In addition, private parties now maintain the SRDH. While the UIDAI was constrained not to collect data on caste, religion and other sensitive information data for Aadhaar, it recommended the states to collect this information, if required, as part of Aadhaar data collection; it termed the process as ‘know your resident’ (KYR) and ‘know your resident plus’ (KYR+).
In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the state governments also conducted state census where voter data, Aadhaar data, 360-degree profiling with details such as caste, religion, bank accounts and other sensitive personal information were also collected. These state census surveys were called the samagra kutumba survey 2014 and the ‘smart pulse survey’ 2016.
The SRDHs are now a part of the State surveillance architecture targeted at the civilian populace. It is these software applications at the SRDH that the ECI used to curate electoral rolls, which resulted in the deletion of a sizeable number of voters from the list in Telangana in 2018. It is not just Telangana but across India; the ECI has already linked Aadhaar and voter IDs of close to 30 crore people resulting in voter deletions.
The role of the ECI to verify voters using door-to-door verification (in 2015) has been subsumed (based on RTI replies from the ECI); a software algorithm commissioned by the government for purposes unknown to the public and maintained by a private IT company is in control now. While the role and autonomy of the ECI itself become speculative, subjecting key electoral rolls to the mercy of an algorithm not known to the public for curation obliterates the concept of universal adult suffrage. In the 2018 Telangana assembly elections, the consequence of such a measure led to the deletion of an estimated two million voters. The experience in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh highlights voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
THE SECRET BALLOT E-VOTING
A mock election (in October 2021) was conducted in Telangana by the state election commission with smartphones using facial recognition, voter ID, Aadhaar number and phone number for authentication while voting. In a situation where the role of money makes a mockery of the democratic process, linking Aadhaar will be futile. Thugs, henchmen can monitor a family, whom they are voting for or force to vote in front of them. If foolproof, electronic voting machines (EVMs) put an end to the days of booth capturing prevalent in the days of paper ballots. But these manifestations are about to bring the age back. E-voting can also be gamed using malware to change the outcome of an election. Corporations or giants that yield power and access to technological means will be the new henchmen and thugs that can alter the election results. While the Bill does not look into large-scale e-voting, there is an issue of ensuring electoral integrity. This method of tagging a vote to a person kills the concept of “secret ballot”.
INDIVIDUAL PROFILING OF VOTERS AND NEW MECHANISMS OF INFLUENCING THE VOTING PROCESS
An Aadhaar-voter ID linkage will also help political parties create voter profiles and influence the voting process. Online trends on the day of voting and micro-targeting voters using their data will make it easier for political parties backed by the Big-Capital and those in power to use data for elections. A ruling coalition will always have an advantage with the data it possesses. An example is Amit Shah asking the then chief ministers from the BJP ruled states to get the data of the beneficiaries of welfare schemes. How this data was used in the 2019 elections is a pointer. The way Aadhaar has been pushed across the country has been undemocratic and unconstitutional since its inception. Aadhaar itself has several fake and duplicate names, which has been widely documented.
This push has to be seen in the context of a continuity of furthering the interests of the ‘big capital’, a push beyond the position it has gained through electoral bonds, A move towards a “one nation - one election” system. For the ruling coalitions and Indian capital, all the local, assembly and general elections being simultaneously held help them choose one single party for the entire nation to push their pro-capital policies. One nation one election is not just about elections. It is the transformation of the Indian electoral system to be a complete appendage of the Indian big capital. If Indian democracy has to survive this onslaught, the resistance must be built, beginning with the fight against this linking.