Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar
Prof. Jagdeep Chhokar

Two ex-CECs have been quoted as saying that the UIDAI had lobbied long and hard to link voter IDs and Aadhaar as a way to legitimise the controversial biometric ID project.

In early 2018, about 6.6 million voters-out of a total of 50 million-were found missing from the Karnataka electoral rolls. More than 1.5 million names were reportedly restored after the Election Commission ran a verification drive. Sample checks in three assembly constituencies of Rajasthan showed similar results: of the 41,826 households in one of these constituencies, 14,356 (or 34 per cent) were found to have only one registered voter each, which means these were deemed to be single-person households. However, Rajasthan has only 2.8 per cent single-person households. Similar reports of names gone missing from electoral rolls have surfaced in many other places.

On March 3, 2015, the Election Commission launched “a comprehensive programme”, called the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP) “with the prime objective of bringing a totally error-free and authenticated electoral roll”. A stated objective of NERPAP was to link and authenticate EPIC (Electoral Photo Identity Card) data with the UIDAI’s Aadhaar data. By August 2015, when the Supreme Court ordered a ban on this linking, 320 million voters had already been linked to their Aadhaar IDs.

The Chief Electoral Officer of a state going to polls next month said in September that the number of voters in the state had come down-from 28.3 million during the 2014 elections to 26.1 million now. Even while inserting a caveat that there could be other reasons for the deletion of names, he said voters had been struck off the rolls in 2015-before the SC ban kicked in-on an Aadhaar-based verification.

The District Election Officer, Jaipur, concluded after “a comprehensive enquiry” into the complaint mentioned above that the errors were minimal, not indicating any large-scale or systematic deletion of voter names. Sources in the ECI claim to have run similar checks-with similar results-for all complaints received.

Should we be worried? Despite the ECI’s enquiries and reassurances, there is a fairly widespread impression that the attempted linking of electoral roll data with Aadhaar may have resulted in the disenfranchisement of legitimate voters. It has also been suggested that some of these deletions are systematic bids to deprive specific groups of their voting rights.

Two former chief election commissioners (CECs) have been quoted as saying, on condition of anonymity, that the UIDAI had lobbied long and hard to link voter IDs and Aadhaar as a way to legitimise the controversial biometric ID project. “They said we should integrate Aadhaar with electoral rolls to eliminate duplicates; the Commission held the view that we should hold off until we fully understand the implications,” said one of these former CECs.

While the ECI’s willingness to investigate complaints is commendable, there’s still uncertainty over how many legitimate voters may have lost their right to vote during the drive, preceding the SC ban, that saw 320 million voter IDs linked to their Aadhaar. Not everyone whose name was deleted due to infirmities in the Aadhaar ecosystem-which are by now well known-will or can approach the ECI for re-enrolment. Given that deprived sections of society are usually the worst hit by such exclusion, many won’t have the wherewithal to even approach the ECI.

There have also been reports that the ECI has been cagey about revealing information on the linking process and what transpired between the rollout in March 2015 and the SC ban in August the same year. In response to RTI applications, it cited “non-availability of information in ‘physical form’ in the ‘records of the Commission'”. This kind of deflectionary legalese does not inspire trust and credibility.

The onus is on the ECI to restore the confidence of the people in a fair electoral process. It must, in addition to investigating specific complaints, thoroughly audit the linking drive between March and August 2015 and revoke all invalid deletions. It’s a massive, but necessary, exercise that must be conducted transparently to restore public confidence.

(The author is former dean and director in-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad, and a founder-member of the Association for Democratic Reforms)

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