Changes To India’s Election Laws: Why The Controversy?
The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill was passed in record time by both houses of Parliament, amidst a walkout by the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. The main thrust of this new bill is that Aadhaar—the identification program initiated by the UPA government and built on by the NDA government after initial opposition—is to be linked as a source of identification and authentication while preparing electoral rolls for the country’s elections. The opposition in both houses has vehemently condemned the bill on multiple grounds, and these concerns need to be understood and addressed since a matter as vital as this cannot be allowed to disturb harmony.
Expected Positives Of The Amendments
The primary amendment this bill proposes is the linkage of Aadhaar data with the electoral rolls prepared by the Election Commission of India, as a source of verification. The ECI has also advocated in favour of this move for quite some time. Aadhaar with its biometric database can help the Commission identify duplicate voters which is a chronic problem. With more than 300 million migrant workers in India, the linkage would undoubtedly help the ECI identify voters registered at multiple places.
The Opposition To The Bill, And Its Reasons
The opposition in Parliament has vehemently decried the bill, citing a number of reasons why the bill is detrimental to elections and the citizens of India.
Firstly, the bill is considered an invasion of privacy as per the nine-judge bench Supreme Court judgment in Justice Puttaswamy’s case regarding the limitations of Aadhaar and its implications on citizens’ privacy.
Secondly, the opposition further alleges that the bill was barely debated at all when it was sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, before being introduced in the Lok Sabha. The bill was passed in both houses with astonishing speed. The opposition criticised this new tendency of bulldozing of bills through Parliament, instead of allowing proper debate and discussion.
Thirdly, as Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor alleged, the Aadhaar card is merely a proof of residence and not proof of citizenship. Hence, by linking Aadhaar to the electoral roll, the government was paving the way for non-citizens to potentially become voters in India, which is a grave constitutional violation and danger to democracy.
Maintaining Electoral Roll Integrity
In my opinion, the linkage of the Aadhaar card to electoral rolls will indeed be useful to the extent it helps identify duplicate voters. However, the opposition in both houses has raised several pertinent points which must be addressed.
To take the matter of voters being removed from electoral rolls or being denied enrolment in the first place is an extremely serious issue. However, this is a problem that has existed even before the introduction of Aadhaar. There have been several cases of lakhs of voters disappearing from electoral rolls such as in Mumbai and Mysore in 2014 or Bangalore in 2019.
With regard to the issue of Aadhaar data becoming accessible to political parties, especially the ruling party, for voter profiling, the Election Commission has assured that safeguards are present (both software and others) so that the Aadhaar and the electoral roll database never interact except as a verification tool and nothing more.
Moreover, the Aadhaar card and the Voter ID card contain almost identical information. The Election Commission has only two types of data: electoral roll and the voting data of the EVMs.
Since EVMs are standalone machines not connected with any computer or network, there is no question of a data breach.
As regards the electoral roll data, that is already in the public domain in pdf format. In any case, it is the minimum possible information consisting of a voter’s name, age, father or spouse name, and address. It also shows how many voters live at the same address. Political parties and candidates carry it with them to approach the voters. Caste and community of the voters is the only vulnerable information that can be guessed from the names – and misused.
There are, however, several problems with the bill as presented in Parliament.
On-Ground Handling Unclear
The draft of the bill states that both registered voters and first-time voters might be asked to present their Aadhaar cards as proof of identity while their names are checked against the electoral roll. However, the bill says the presenting of the Aadhaar card is a voluntary exercise, and the electoral officer cannot demand that it be produced. This is a confounding provision. If Aadhaar information is to be volunteered, how is the Election Commission supposed to garner the consent of 90 crore voters? Is a door-to-door campaign to be conducted?
If Aadhaar information is optional, the insistence of the staff on the voter to give “sufficient cause” is coercive. A voter should not be made to give a reason for her option. It must be unconditional.
On the flip side, how can we identify duplicate voters unless the complete voter list is subjected to authentication, in which case the linking should have been compulsory.
The bill was given almost no time in the Parliamentary Standing Committee and was subsequently rushed through both houses. Why couldn’t the government convince other political parties? What rocket science was involved? Besides, when over 50 electoral reforms proposals have been pending for over two decades, why has this reform assumed such urgency that it had to be bulldozed?
The bill has an implication for the future of elections in this country. It has two good reforms namely four quarterly qualifying dates for the new voters instead of one and inclusion of spouse for service voters. It’s noteworthy that not a word has been uttered against these. These should have been praised. Why the opposition to the third reform? A clean electoral roll is every party’s concern. They should have been taken along.
The manner in which possibly a perfectly innocuous and legitimate reform has been rushed through has created doubts in public minds. It was avoidable.
SY Quraishi is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India and author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder - The Making of the Great Indian Election’.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.