Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s assertion that a Parliament-approved legislation can restore mandatory linking of biometric Aadhaar with mobile phones and bank accounts is yet another manifestation of the authoritarian approach of his government towards the unique national identity and its uses. It needs no rocket science to understand that Parliament has powers to frame laws that can overrule the decisions of the Supreme Court, which had struck down certain tyrannical parts of the Aadhaar law that made it mandatory for getting a mobile connection or opening bank accounts. Jaitley’s reminder that it is still possible to restore the draconian provision only reinforces the worry that the government is not ready to accept the spirit of the apex court’s ruling, which also included a dissenting note by Justice DY Chandrachud, who saw in it attempts to establish a ‘surveillance state’.
The finance minister contradicts himself by describing Aadhaar as something more than a ‘citizenship card’, the principal aim of which was to work with “a system where you give a lot of government money in the form of various support and subsidies to all kinds of people”. If the objective is to ensure delivery of subsidies and other benefits, he does not explain why it is required to be linked to phone numbers and bank accounts because neither brings any monetary benefit on its own, unless the meaning of benefits is stretched to include better communication and access to banking services. It is understandable to make it essential for receiving benefits, but there is no merit in making it mandatory for all.
After the 5-member bench upheld the constitutionality of Aadhaar by a 4-1 majority, the finance minister had taken great pains to explain that it was a victory for the government, although he did not sound very convincing as the court struck down some of the most contentious provisions relating to privacy. Now he is trying to take cover behind a section that allows authorisation to collect biometrics and other details through new laws. The striking down of the draconian provisions had the opponents of Aadhaar rejoicing in victory as many of their privacy concerns had been upheld by the court.
The government’s threat to go back to some of these powers through the legislative route must re-kindle fears about its intentions. There has already been serious objection to the action in passing the Aadhaar Act as a money bill, obviating the need for it to pass scrutiny by Rajya Sabha. While the majority verdict had upheld this part, the dissenting judge had termed it as a ‘fraud on the Constitution’ and hinted at the possibility of future judicial reviews. Weighing in all the factors, it can be said with assurance that there is need for continued vigil on this front.