The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 that was passed in haste in the winter session in the Lok Sabha, and which facilitates amendment to the Representation of People’s Act, is a step toward implementing online-based remote e-voting for which the use of Aadhaar will be the primary identity. The linking of Aadhaar with one’s voter ID was primarily to build a biometric dependent voting system from the very beginning. The tall claim made to support this change was to fight “fraud and duplicates” in the electoral rolls. At the same time, 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. In the 2018 Telangana Assembly elections for instance, the consequence of such a measure led to the deletion of an estimated two million voters.
The case of two States
In 2014, the Election Commission of India (ECI) conducted two pilot programmes on linking the voter id with Aadhaar in the districts of Nizamabad and Hyderabad. Using the claim of effectiveness in removing duplicate voters, the ECI 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, which had to be completed 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 were 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.
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, 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 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. 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 to 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 SRDH applications 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 (Unstarred question 2673, Rajya Sabha of January 2019).
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, and widely reported in 2018, after the Telangana Assembly elections in December); 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 is speculative, subjecting key electoral rolls to surveillance software damages the concept of universal adult suffrage. What the experience in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh highlights is voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
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 (this was tweeted by the Collector, Khammam). This method kills the “secret ballot”. In a situation where the role of money makes a mockery of the democratic process, linking Aadhaar will be futile. Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), if foolproof, 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. While the Bill does not look into large-scale e-voting, there is an issue of ensuring electoral integrity.
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 in power to use data for elections. A ruling coalition will always have an advantage with the data it possesses. An example is of the Chief Ministers from certain States being asked 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. The linking of Aadhaar with voter ID will create complexities in the voter databases that will be hard to fix. This process will introduce errors in electoral rolls and vastly impact India’s electoral democracy.
Kiran Chandra Yarlagadda is General Secretary, Free Software Movement of India (FSMI). Srinivas Kodali is Researcher, FSMI