Election Law Amendment bill: Centre rejects concerns, says reforms need of hour
The government on Tuesday defended the Election Law Amendment bill, rejected various concerns surrounding it, and pointed to the demand, in the past, by various political parties, including the Congress, for linking Aadhaar to the Voter ID, even as opposition parties argued that the decision would disenfranchise electors, put critical data at risk of breach by non-state actors and lead to voter profiling.
The bill proposes to voluntarily link Aadhaar data to electoral rolls and make the language of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 (the RP Act, 1950) gender neutral, with the former provision being particularly controversial, with opposition leaders saying it will lead to “mass disenfranchisement”. It was passed by the Rajya Sabha a day after it cleared the Lok Sabha amidst loud protests and demands for a division, and will come into effect as law once it gets the President’s approval.
Government officials asserted that the Election Laws (Amendment) bill 2021 incorporates various electoral reforms which have been discussed for a long time. “Registration in electoral roll is done based on an application by a person who is eligible to be registered as a voter. This bill has a provision whereby the new applicant may voluntarily provide Aadhaar number along with the application for the purpose of identity. No application will be rejected on the grounds that Aadhaar number has not been provided,” a government official said on condition of anonymity. “Aadhaar linking with electoral roll will solve one of the major problems in electoral database management which is multiple enrolment of the same person at different places.”
The official added that the decision will help clean up electoral rolls and facilitate elector registration in the location at which they are “ordinarily resident”.
The official also referenced an Election Commission press release from 27 August, 2018, which said that “political parties urged the Commission to link Aadhaar numbers with electors’ detail for better electoral roll management”.A second official pointed to news reports , also from 2018, that said that representatives from the Congress’ unit in Madhya Pradesh met the chief election commissioner and sought a re-verification of the electoral roll in the state by linking Aadhaar numbers to Voter IDs. That demand came months before the state went to polls.
While the government pointed to the phrasing of the bill, which said the linking would be voluntary, privacy activists said that exceptions to not providing an Aadhaar number would only be clear when the government framed the rules under the law.
Potential for data breach
Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury told HT that when the government couldn’t keep the account of the Prime Minister from being hacked, it couldn’t be expected to protect the data of all the citizens, a reference to the PM’s Twitter account being temporarily compromised, although it isn’t clear whether this was caused by hacking or a security lapse. “There are so many issues with the bill in its current format and we wanted it to be scrutinized further by a standing committee. India does not have a data protection law yet, how can one introduce such legislation? Even the Twitter account of the Prime Minister isn’t safe . How will the government ensure the privacy of such critical data?”
He added that the linkage would open the ecosystem to a possibility of a data breach by any agency or non-state actors, a contention that Biju Janata Dal MP Amar Patnaik concurred with.
“Linking of Aadhaar identification at time of new or revision of electoral rolls for the stated purpose of removing duplication is good legislative intent and is welcome.” Patnaik told HT. “But the method of achieving it by linking it to the entire Aadhaar ecosystem system is problematic. The government first needs to make the system more robust.”
If citizens’ data is breached, Patnaik added, they would have no recourse to their right to privacy in the absence of a data privacy law.
No stakeholder consultation
Senior leaders from across opposition parties on Tuesday slammed the government for having held no stakeholder consultation before introducing the bill.
Chowdhury said that the government held no consultations regarding the contentious provision of the bill.
“Congress was not called by the government for any consultation,” he said.
Patnaik too said that no consultation was held by the government before the draft was introduced before the House. He, however, added that in a consultation with the Election Commission, political parties had agreed to link Aadhaar numbers with voter ID cards.
“Based on this consultation, when ECI moved ahead, SC struck it down saying that a law needed to be brought in Parliament,” he said. “The problem can be solved by linking Aadhaar numbers, why the need to link the entire ecosystem?”
Voter profiling, disenfranchisement
Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi highlighted how the linkage could lead to profiling of voters. “In 26 minutes an election law was passed in the LS to connect Aadhar with Voter ID. Aadhar data has address,mobile numbers&financial details. Can help map political preferences through social media connected to phone number, disenfranchise those in opposition from voter roll,” she tweeted.
AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi told HT that the decision would adversely impact both universal adult franchise and the secret ballot. “The secret ballot will suffer because of the government’s decision,” he said. “Empirical studies show that there 1.5 times more mistakes in Aadhaar than in the voter list. Moreover, if the government’s argument rests on ending bogus voting, then they casting doubts over the fairness of elections in the country. Let EC answer that.”
Using the example of Telangana, Owaisi added that Aadhaar details were used to systematically eliminate voters from the electoral roll.
According to Jagdeep Chokkar of the Association of Democratic Reforms, no consultations were done with the government on the issue. “If the government did stakeholder consultation, let them say with whom,” he said. “There are so many mistakes with the Aadhaar system itself, how will it correct mistakes of voter ids? The SC specifically as the EC to stop the linking forthwith because Aadhaar was meant for benefits and services. Even in the national capital, oftentimes, Aadhaar system doesn’t match my fingerprints, how will poor people use it to vote in rural areas? This decision rather creates the potential of depriving people in remote areas from voting.”