Opinion

The Ultimate Tool for Crazed Leaders

The Finance Bill 2017 has given Big Government the most powerful surveillance tool there is. Be scared. Be very very scared.

Let me be upfront with you right at the beginning. My intention behind writing this piece is to share this genuine feeling of fear that has been building up within me for the past two-and-a-half years. At this point of time, it has reached its peak and I am unable to figure out how to get rid of it except by sharing it with others. I wish to scare you.

Since 2014, those of us who are privy to the inner workings of Parliament have been telling ourselves: “It will be Okay. How bad can a majority government be? At least they will be better than the UPA II! At least the Parliament will now function.” The Parliament did function better, but not in the way we had expected.

Nobody could have predicted the extent of how far this Government would go to push their agenda. What is their agenda exactly, you ask? Hindutva? Beef ban? Nationalism? I believe it’s bigger than just emotions, it’s bigger than anything that is currently ‘trending’ in our public mind. It is becoming clearer and clearer with each passing session that their agenda is: JAM.

Jan Dhan, Aadhaar & Mobile

To break it down and de-acronymise, JAM is a combination of financial inclusion through digitisation, tracking using a Unique ID (Aadhaar), gathering big data via mobile phones, identifying trends, constant monitoring & spreading influence.

Ravish Kumar, in a lecture he delivered recently, offered an  interesting analogy :

The current times feel like sitting in an examination hall that is constantly being raided by vigilante groups or flying squads – invoking and reinforcing the feeling that there is a culprit inside us that will certainly be caught red-handed in time. We are being searched repeatedly. Those who speak their minds freely have trolls set on them.

A chill runs down the spines of those present in this ‘examination hall’ whenever a new raiding party visits. And a fear of being implicated falsely – without having committed any crime – takes over. These groups have frightened more innocent people than they have caught wrongdoers.

This week, the Indian Parliament passed a law which straps us citizens tightly into a seat in this examination hall: The Finance Bill, 2017. Not enough has been said about the horrifying manner in which this bill was bulldozed through the Lok Sabha. It contained provisions which do not belong within a money bill. They pushed the Speaker — who is supposed to be unbiased — into suspending a host of rules. This gave them the freedom to insert changes to laws such as Representation of People’s Act, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Act, Indian Armed Forces Act & others. These should have all been brought in as separate laws but they were inserted into this year’s Finance Bill instead. Given the controversial (and terrifying) contents of this bill, it makes sense that this government would be eager to push it through so blatantly, making sure that it doesn’t get blocked by the Rajya Sabha.

For argument’s sake, let’s take a look at two controversial amendments and what implications they will have when clubbed together. One provision within this Bill gives unreasonable powers to Income Tax officials to conduct search & seizures. The other provision makes Aadhaar compulsory for Income Tax filing. The bill also says that it is mandatory to link PAN cards with Aadhaar by July 1 this year, otherwise the PAN will become invalid.

As Reetika Khera put it:

Aadhaar has crept into our lives over the last few years and spread like cancer. Whatever scheme it touches, it just eats it up and destroys it.

For the past few months, there has been a spate of notifications making Aadhaar mandatory for various schemes and services offered by the Government. Our Finance Minister argued & defended this by saying that it is making subsidy delivery more efficient and transparent. He said that this is the only way we can stop leakages on the ground. And then, last week, he made Aadhaar mandatory for filing income tax returns.

It does not make sense that a law passed in Parliament last year clearly titled, “Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016” now also applies to income tax. During the debate, Arun Jaitley said:

This bill deals with one primary focus and that is: Whoever gets benefit from the Consolidated Fund of India, either state government or the Centre and other institutions — the person is entitled to have an Aadhaar card.

Paying tax is not a benefit. If anything, it’s a benefit for the Government. One has to wonder how our Finance Minister can lie like this, and put it on record without caring about the consequences.

It is increasingly becoming clear that Aadhaar has one more purpose, most probably its primary purpose: Surveillance.

Big Brother has your metadata

Why would the government make it compulsory to connect an Aadhaar with the PAN? Well, by doing so, they will be able to get financial metadata of all taxpayers in this country. Couple that with the second amendment, giving extra powers to the income tax department. During his budget speech, Jaitley said:

In order to maintain the confidentiality of the source of the information and the identity of the informer, it is proposed to clarify that the reasons to believe as recorded by the income-tax authority authorising a search operation or a requisition of books of account or asset, shall not be disclosed to any person, authority or appellate tribunal.

This ‘reason to believe’ was the only defence innocent taxpayers had to protect themselves from harassment by Income Tax officers. It’s no secret that there are a few bad eggs in the Department who make a killing out of harassing assessees and extorting bribes from them.

Of course, there are tax evaders who also use this ‘reason to believe’ clause to get away from the long arms of law, but as the saying goes: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

By giving an additional layer of Aadhaar tracking capabilities, one has a sneaking suspicion that the Government is trying to play Big Brother. We cannot, and must not, underestimate this incessant need to garner power and control by any government. It has been proven in the past, it will be proven time and again that a person in power, regardless of ideology and mindset, will want to continue staying in power.

Consider this hypothetical scenario where the Aadhaar system becomes so robust that it can give an operator all kinds of data about a single person like name, age, address, mobile number, location, bank account details, tax payments, caste, religion and more. If the operator happens to be a person in power, this kind of information can be used for getting rid of their competition, to anticipate behavior, to watch over their activities and to harass close friends/family, just to use them as leverage.

During the 50 days of demonetisation, there were reports about how the PMO was giving directions to the Income Tax Department and ordering them to conduct raids, seize cash & ‘produce results’. The added capacity of Aadhaar-based tracking will make these raids more precise, more accurate and more efficient. Add to that the Finance Bill clause which says that the IT officers will not be answerable to anyone and cannot be questioned as to why they conducted the raid. Who is this mysterious informer whose identity this government is so eager to protect by removing the reason to believe clause?

It’s terrifying when you consider what kind of misery a crazed leader with dictatorial tendencies can unleash using this. Since this has now become a law, any leader in the future can use this to unleash havoc and retain their post. Do not make the mistake of seeing this as a short-term, two-and-a-half year ‘problem’ which will go away after the 2019 general elections. The sad truth is that whoever comes to power will want this political tool in their hands to retain the title of the most powerful person in India.

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About the author

Meghnad S

Meghnad S is a public policy professional and a die-hard Parliament nerd. At the moment, he is working with Biju Janata Dal’s Tathagatha Satpathy, a member of Parliament, as his Chief of Staff. When he is not watching Lok Sabha; Rajya Sabha TV obsessively, he spends his time pouring over legislation and trying to simplify them on Twitter. He is a former LAMP, a fellowship run by PRS Legislative Research and has been working with multiple MPs across party lines for the past six years.