As a balloon sent up to test the air or the windsock to test the direction and speed of the wind, the “one card-one nation” proposition was brain numbing. The purpose of “The Card”, according to home minister Amit Shah, would be that “all data should be put together in a single card”. The question is why? What will this card do? How will the holder of the card benefit from it?
Apart from the fact that neither passports nor driving licences would be valid if these documents were put on to a “single card”, the idea of “The Card” tells us nothing at all on what makes it “should” do. On the other hand, the idea of “The Card” is going to raise hackles in some quarters, create opportunities for endless speculation and enable a conversation that can only go around in circles, as no one really knows what it means.
Indians already have cards. Those who need to travel overseas or even those who dream of doing so but never may have passports. Just about 50 per cent of the population have 574 million bank accounts (though some, like me, may have multiple accounts, all duly filed with the income-tax authorities, in the interests of full disclosure) and presumably chip-enabled cards. Almost everyone of eligible age has a voter card, totalling some 897 million voters as per the 2019 elections. Even so, there are eligible citizens who do not have voter cards; thousands and thousands of women are not on the list, because they have either never been enlisted or they have moved or their names have changed. This is quite apart from the mysterious exclusions that occur every time the voters’ list is revised.
Cards and lists that precede the making of the cards are error-ridden, annoying, time-consuming, income terminating, albeit temporarily, misadventures in India. Nothing ever gets done in one shot. Just how inefficient the system is has been proved with heart-stopping clarity by the failure of the “system” to produce a flawless list of registered/eligible citizens in one corner of a not very heavily populated state, namely Assam.
The trouble with Mr Amit Shah’s statement on why there should be yet one more card is that he wears at least two hats. He is the Union home minister as well as the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party. What exactly is his status within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is not equally important, but if he has one, it must come with some responsibilities. If “The Card” idea was floated by Mr Shah in his BJP persona, it would be a deliberately provocative political poke. If, on the other hand, “The Card” idea was proposed by Mr Shah as home minister, then it is an altogether different ballgame.
The BJP may have been right when it laid down the law — one man-one post. It would have avoided the current confusion over which Amit Shah proposed the idea of “The Card”. Trying to figure out the exact point at which Mr Shah slips in and out of his two roles when speaking in public and making significant announcements is mind-boggling. Given his stamina, Mr Shah may not get disoriented, but others do, juggling with the multiple personalities and the disorder that follows.
A BJP president with a definite target to keep the party in power in as many states as possible for as long as possible has a political agenda. “The Card” is in the service of that agenda, as one more effort at weeding out whoever is required to be politically declared persona non grata or whatever is the fancy word for a person who sneaked in across the border as an illegal, makes a lot of sense. As a euphemism for the very flawed and extremely exasperating process known as the National Register of Citizens and its concomitant, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, “The Card” could cut the derision as well as the apprehension that is now inevitable, after Assam.
A home minister, however, needs to be far more cautious in proposing an idea that is, to begin with, a snafu. Passports cannot be put on the same card and the highly experienced bureaucrats in the home ministry must have known it. If they did not advise the minister on what to list as the data that “should be put together in a single card”, then the minister should watch out on what is happening on his turf, because he is in serious danger of being misled, and so in misleading the nation.
As home minister, Mr Shah has the additional responsibility that he is accountable for his words as much as for his actions in that role. Irrespective of how dysfunctional Parliament may be, the fact is that a ministry is accountable for the work it does and the minister likewise.
“The Card” is not an idea floated for political purposes when the home minister announces it. It becomes a proposal of the government that must then tell citizens what the card is for. Saying “should” is simply not enough. Saying that it puts together data is seriously dangerous, because the purpose of the government is not surveillance.
Making cards costs money. It requires to be paid for through budgetary provisions. Therefore, the home minister has to explain why this card is necessary and how it will benefit people. He is answerable for when it will be rolled out. And why the card is to be linked to digitisation of the Census. Such random connections are not appropriate for the home minister, however suitable these may be for the BJP chief, because these are irresponsible statements. The home minister must explain and justify the expenditure of public money and the benefit such a card will provide.
Will this too be a “jumla”, as Mr Shah once famously described the 2014 election promise of Rs 15 lakhs in every Indian's bank account? It ought not to be. In 2014, he was only the BJP president. As home minister of the sixth or seventh largest economy in the world, a country that is internationally significant, he owes the public either an explanation or a retraction.