The Supreme Court has masterfully separated elitist chaff from utilitarian grain. It deserves admiration for upholding a modern view of governance.
A stunning verdict was delivered on Aadhaar this morning. It wasn’t the one by the Supreme Court. It came from that greatest court of the “people” these days: Google Trends, which tells you what is it that we are interested in, or searching. Given how much Aadhaar had dominated our minds, you would have expected it to be the top trend.
It was, probably, for a few fleeting moments now and then, I am told. But mostly, it struggled to be in the top 10. Even as I write this, just after noon time, and still within two hours of this historic judgment, it is nowhere near the top 10. It is languishing way down, beaten by such vital interests as Ajay Devgn and Hazel Keech (who’s she?) at no. 5 and 6.
What does it mean on a day when the Supreme Court has delivered a rare, wise judgement, weighing in with technology, science, modern governance tools and the tough choice of the larger common good versus the last man standing? That “unique” doesn’t have to be the “best” is a more literary way of reiterating that pragmatic wisdom: Good is not the enemy of the best.
Then why is nobody bothered, barring, if I may turn the knife, the about 3,229 (remember I made up that number, with some exaggeration) Aadhaarophobes? Some of these are mourning defeat, some searching for shards of victory out of the wreckage, and promising to fight another day.
Here’s my question: Was anybody really bothered, barring in the tiny echo chamber of voices that feed on and amplify each others’, crying havoc in the name of the poor multitudes, who they know nothing about? The Indian intellectual-Left elites’ cognitive understanding of the Indian poor is about as good as the last seminar she attended at one of New Delhi’s vegetating intellectual hangouts where cross-fertilisation of ideas is viewed with deep suspicion and the “other” view is necessarily immoral, stupid, compromised, corrupt and funded by evil corporates.
Or, how come so few Indians are interested in what was built up into the greatest challenge to our liberties since the Emergency? There will be murmurs in the English-language press for a few days. If you watch Hindi, and other languages, which a vast majority of India consumes, it will disappear in 48 hours, max.
That’s the gap between the elites and our little planet that thinks and speaks in English, feeds off Western debates and fads, and real India. Our is the universe that proudly cites Julian Assange and Edward Snowden as our champions of liberty. Fifty metres away from JNU, India International Centre, India Habitat Centre or the Press Club of India, 999 out of 1,000 won’t know who these two “free-speech” icons are.
Whatever my view on Aadhaar, I cannot, and won’t celebrate the serial defeat of liberal causes in an India where politics has been following the broader global trend of strongman-leadership and a throttling of the “other”. It is sad that that this is happening in India at a time when the world, from Trump to Putin, Abe, Xi, Modi, Erdogan and Netanyahu, is being ruled by alpha males who do not play by conventional rules and are popular for precisely that reason. But I would disagree with many of the causes that are chosen for this liberal fight. Aadhaar, was one such.
Aadhaar was a lost cause for three reasons. First, because our intellectual elites are far too distant from real India to understand it. Your housemaid, driver, auto rickshawwala or paanwala can’t be your window to real India. You have to live it more closely. Our on-ground social activists, Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Jean Dreze belong there. They believe (sincerely, but erroneously in my view) that technology is opaque, non-accountable, and the poor will suffer if it replaces the touchy-feeling humanised state, however imperfect. That view, unfortunately, was totally subsumed in this “Aadhaar or Apocalypse” fight.
The second, privacy is a very vital human concern. What precedes it, however, is identity. Because identity gives you dignity. For the vast, vast majority of Indians, a lack of identity is their cruellest indignity. What does privacy mean to somebody who has to face daily humiliation at some sarkari office just for that rubber stamp on a piece of paper confirming she is, who she actually is. For her Aadhaar brings identity, and a new beginning. Why should she be dragged into the fight for the privacy concerns of the entitled few?
And third, because the intellectual upper crust is easy to please. See the celebration by so many of the fact that Aadhaar is no longer mandatory for bank accounts and phone connections. Yaaaay, no more getting spammed with messages on my phone: We have heard and seen this often since this morning. But, weren’t we told that the fight was about the rights and dignity of the poor, that how could we ever trust the state with our data? What are we now celebrating if the court says trust the state, with your data, leave the poor to them, we will meanwhile protect you from the pestilence of phone and finance companies?
In more direct language, the judges have masterfully separated elitist chaff from utilitarian grain. They deserve admiration for upholding a modern view of governance, as also for the smarts of offering a lollipop to the noisy few in this masterful two-in-one verdict.
Disclosure: Nandan Nilekani, the founder of UIDAI, is among the distinguished founder-investors in ThePrint. Please click here for details on investors.