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Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is a changed man after his sabbatical last year. He may soon become the head of the party, former minister Jairam Ramesh tells Sonia Sarkar

Ravi Shankar’s sitar notes waft in the air. I am early for my appointment, but Jairam Ramesh is already in his study at his residence in central Delhi. The former Congress minister may give the impression that he has all the time in the world for you. But he has been busy.

“You have to do a lot of work when you are in Opposition,” he says.

Last week, Ramesh filed a petition in the Supreme Court, challenging the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for passing the Aadhaar Bill as a money bill in the Lok Sabha. A money bill does not need to be passed by the Rajya Sabha, where the ruling NDA is in a minority and where Ramesh, as a member, had suggested amendments. The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, got passed after all recommendations from the Upper House, primarily suggested by Ramesh, were rejected.

“The government declared it a money bill, which was a fraudulent declaration. I have challenged this,” the Congress spokesperson says.

Ramesh’s recommendations related to privacy. He argued that Aadhaar should not be made mandatory and should only be used for subsidy and welfare programmes.

His criticism of Aadhaar is ironical because it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which launched the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) with much fanfare in 2010. The project, which promised to give every citizen an Aadhaar number, got mired in controversy, with many holding that it violated a person’s right to privacy.

A swanky office was built in central Delhi for UIDAI during the UPA rule. The former Infosys head, Nandan Nilekani (who later fought on a Congress ticket from Bangalore and was defeated), was made its chairman.

But Ramesh distances himself from the scheme. “Neither (former Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh nor (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi nor I created any hype around Aadhaar. The only person who created the hype around Aadhaar was Nilekani,” the former rural development minister says.

Ramesh is one of the most vocal leaders of the Congress. Political watchers describe him as a good communicator, always articulate and often provocative. “Communication is also visual these days, not just oral. It is not about your words but also your body language that matters,” he explains.

It would seem that the mantra has dawned upon the Congress rather late. The party has often been criticised for not managing to communicate its policy to the people, unlike the Bharatiya Janata Party, which excels in coining slogans.

“Narendra Modi has certainly brought a greater awareness of marketing, networking and communication into the political class,” Ramesh says, adding that he gives full marks to the Prime Minister’s “packaging” skills. “Whether it is Digital India or Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna or Aadhaar or the Swachh Bharat mission, he has re-packaged all our schemes well,” he says.

Ramesh, who was also minister of state for drinking water and sanitation, refers to the Swachh Bharat mission, which, as Nirmal Bharat, was one of the planks of the UPA government. He believes that when issues such as hygiene and cleanliness are taken up by a prime minister, they get “sanctity”. Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, did not bring them up.

“When I was the minister, I said that India needed more toilets than temples, but I could not get my PM to talk about it,” Ramesh laments.

But Modi’s biggest failure, he adds, is that he has not brought business to India as he had promised. “There is disappointment and disenchantment, if not disillusionment, among people in the business community who voted for Modi. But the Prime Minister has to outgrow Twitter and Instagram to know the reality,” he says.

He describes Modi as “a ‘ dramebaaz‘ prime minister and not a ‘gravitas’ prime minister”, and maintains that India is now marching to an “illiberal” democracy. “The core of democratic structures – debate, dissent, discussion, compromise and negotiation – is slowly disappearing,” he says.

Ramesh himself grew up in what he refers to as an “ecumenical Hindu family”, learning Sanskrit from the age of nine. His father, a Vaishnavite and a Shankaracharya devotee, taught in engineering colleges, and he grew up in campuses in Roorkee, Bombay and Ranchi.

He recalls that when he was in IIT Bombay, where he studied mechanical engineering, a professor had urged him to join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “But I refused,” he says. “I am not an RSS Hindu. I’d rather not be a Hindu if the RSS is going to tell me what a Hindu is,” he says. “This is not Tagore or Gandhi or Vivekananda’s Hinduism. This is bigoted and convoluted Hinduism.”

Ramesh is not a known follower of the silence-is-golden school. During the UPA rule, he had upset Prime Minister Singh when, in Beijing, he criticised his government’s “paranoid” attitude towards Chinese companies and investments. In 2007, he kicked up a row after he asked the then culture minister, Ambika Soni, to resign over a government affidavit to court saying that Ram was a mythological figure.

“I shouldn’t have said publicly what I said,” Ramesh admits. “Now I have learnt not to answer every question.”

He is certainly more careful than he was earlier, but still tends to speak first and regret later. He refers at length to a senior Congress leader’s attire, and then texts me after the interview, earnestly requesting me to drop those lines.

His own attire is eye-catching. Ramesh is usually to be seen in well-cut kurtas and churidars. The most striking feature is his wavy white hair that touches his neck. He doesn’t look his 62 years, and old friends recall that he looked young for his age even when he returned from the US after higher studies and joined the Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices.

This was followed by stints on the advisory board in energy, ministry of industry and the Planning Commission. Perceived to be close to P.V. Narasimha Rao, he worked for three months in the Prime Minister’s Office in Rao’s government, after which he was sent back to the Planning Commission. Almost 26 years later, Ramesh says he still doesn’t know why that happened.

“That remains a mystery to me,” he says.

In his book To the Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story, out last year, Ramesh writes that there was speculation that he was too open and accessible and couldn’t work self-effacingly. Others speculated that [godman] Chandraswami was not happy with his presence in the PMO. Some said Rao would not “stomach” anybody whom he saw as “Rajiv’s boys”.

<,>R<,>amesh was also seen as one of Rao’s blue-eyed boys. In fact, through his career, he has had people who’ve mentored him to success. Among the first was former civil servant and diplomat Abid Hussain, who introduced him to the Planning Commission in 1986. He met Sam Pitroda through Hussain, and Pitroda introduced him to Rajiv Gandhi, for whom Ramesh wrote election speeches.

Another adviser was former home minister P. Chidambaram. But the two, it is believed, fell out during the UPA’s second stint.

“We had differences. As finance minister, he had a role to play, and I also had to take care of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, rural roads and Indira Awaas Yojna. We were prisoners of circumstances,” he says.

Some whisper that Ramesh has risen in politics because of his acute networking skills. He laughs at that. “How could you say that when I don’t socialise or go out? Life has been good to me. I have been at the right place at the right time.”

And when you are a Congressman who is close to the Gandhi family, you are, of course, at the right place all the time. He has worked closely with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and is seen as an adviser to the party vice-president, Rahul Gandhi.

“Sonia Gandhi is a remarkably private person who has been thrown into the whirlpool of Indian politics which is a horrendously public enterprise,” he says. “The poker-faced serious personality one sees in public is different from the real Mrs Gandhi, who has a remarkable sense of humour and an ability to laugh at herself.”

Rahul Gandhi, he adds, is “a friend and colleague, who gives me the freedom to talk”. After his sabbatical last year, when he took a 56-day break from politics, Gandhi is a “transformed man – visible, vocal and active”.

The Gandhi scion, he adds, may soon take over as the president of the party. “We hope it will happen in 2016,” he adds.

We move on to the elections in West Bengal, where the Congress has formed an alliance with the Left parties. What made it strike a deal with a sinking ship?

“The Left is not a sinking ship. The Buddha babu-led Left is very pragmatic,” he says, referring to former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “Between the Left and Trinamul, the Left is more predictable; Mamata is mercurial.”

A Rajya Sabha member from Andhra Pradesh, Ramesh’s tenure in the Upper House will end in June this year. Sections in the party are said to be opposing the half-Kannadiga and half-Tamil MP’s bid for re-election. “If the party wants me, it will have me. If the party wants somebody else, the party will have somebody else,” he says.

Like Rahul Gandhi, Ramesh is a changed man – he is being careful with his words.

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It’s 11 in the morning, and it’s business as usual in Delhi’s commercial hub, Connaught Place. But the security guard standing outside the glass door of an office in a high-rise building is leisurely drinking tea. There are hardly any visitors coming in.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) office, once a hub of activity, bears a deserted look. Yet, even some months ago, corporate bigwigs from India and abroad would land up there to meet its then boss, Nandan Nilekani. Everybody wanted their Aadhaar cards, which had been launched at a cost of Rs 3,300 crore in 2009.

On March 24, the Supreme Court (SC) of India said in an interim order that people without Aadhaar cards should not be deprived of government benefits. The order came in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by former Justice K.S. Puttaswamy and retired major general S.G. Vombatkere, challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar.

On the same day, the SC stayed the order of the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court asking the UIDAI to share fingerprint details of a rape accused with the CBI. “The UIDAI stated that this would open up the floodgates for all kinds of requests for resident data,” Nilekani wrote in his blog on March 24.

“When it (Aadhaar) was launched, the government said the scheme would help transfer the benefits of various government subsidy programmes directly to the people. After the SC interim order, it clearly means that you do not have to have an Aadhaar card to get the benefits,” says Colonel (retd) Mathew Thomas, who too had filed a petition in the SC questioning the Aadhaar, under which every citizen is given a specific identification number.

Shyam Divan, the counsel for Vombatkere, told the court that there was no statute to back the project and even if there was one, it would violate the fundamental rights under Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution as the project enables surveillance of individuals and impinges upon the right to human dignity.

So far, UIDAI has been functioning under an executive order issued by the government in January 2009, as an attached office of the Planning Commission. Even before the National Identification Authority of India Bill (the proposed legislature for UIDAI) was passed, UIDAI was issuing Aadhaar cards.

A former planning commission official says that the standing Committee of Finance had stated in its report way back in 2011 that this is a clear circumvention of the Parliament. “Not just that, it also said that Aadhaar is a waste of resources since there are other existing form of IDs,” she says.

Aadhaar-enabled service delivery initiatives have been linked to various government schemes such as payment of wages, social security benefits including old age payments and distribution of LPG cylinders. Maharashtra and Delhi made Aadhaar compulsory for opening of bank accounts, rent agreements and marriage certificates.

Many have said that the scheme violates human rights because citizens have to submit their biometric details (such as fingerprints and an iris scan) to get their unique numbers. These details of the 59.4 crore people who have received their Aadhaar cards have already been recorded by the UIDAI.

The card has been courting controversy from the beginning. Four major PILs have been filed in the SC. Two question the constitutional validity of Aadhaar. The third, filed by social activist Aruna Roy, makes a plea against making Aadhaar mandatory for benefits such as pensions and scholarships. The fourth holds that Aadhaar lacks statutory backing. The apex court is also hearing a batch of pleas against decisions of some states to make Aadhaar numbers compulsory for a range of activities including payment of salary, provident fund, marriage and property registration.

In September, the Supreme Court said Aadhaar was not mandatory for citizens to get benefits of government schemes. It also asked the government not to issue the card to illegal migrants. In November, it issued notices to 11 states on a PIL questioning the legal validity of the Aadhaar card as well as the authority to link it with certain services and benefits. On March 24, the court directed the government to withdraw all orders that made Aadhaar mandatory for any service.

“The UIDAI always said it was a voluntary scheme. It is the state government which made it mandatory, not us,” stresses Zoheb Hossain, the assisting lawyer of solicitor-general Mohan Parasaran.

The government, the UIDAI argues, launched Aadhaar to eradicate fraud, black-marketeering and pilferage in its beneficiary schemes. “Aadhaar is the only foolproof mechanism to check misuse of subsidies,” attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati and Parasaran, representing UIDAI, told the court in their submission.

UIDAI’s opponents, however, believe that the scheme is flawed. They have questioned the agencies put in charge of enrolling people, the involvement of dubious companies and the ever-increasing cost of the project.

Cases of fake enrollment have been rampant under Aadhaar. In 2012, police in Hyderabad unearthed that 800 fake enrollments were being made under the quota of physically-disabled. In 2013, newspaper reports revealed that in Bangalore, Aadhaar cards have been issued in the name of chair, dog and tree.

Experts say that there has always been an emphasis on the “number” of enrolments being done under the scheme because the enrollment agencies get Rs 350 per enrollment from the UIDAI. “So the focus  has always been on the getting more and more people enrolled. But how one is doing it was never a concern fro the government,” Mathews says.

A recent sting operation by an investigative portal said people who posed as refugees from Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan were permitted to sign up for the scheme.

“If a person had a fake ID all these years with his photo and address on it, his Aadhaar ID is also fake because it is based on a fake card,” says Rajeev Chandrashekhar, a Rajya Sabha MP critical of the system. “Aadhaar doesn’t have a mechanism to distinguish between a citizen and a non-citizen. So taxpayer-funded subsidies and cash transfers can go to illegal immigrants,” Hossain says.

The other allegation has been that UIDAI had signed contract with dubious enrollement agencies. For example, UIDAI signed a contract with one private form, COMAT Technologies Private Limited , which had earlier failed to deliver after signing a contract with the Karnataka government.

“In 2010, according to a government audit report, COMAT Technologies Private Limited, did not comply with contract that it had signed with Karnataka government to undertake a door-to-door survey and to set up biometric devices, for which it was paid 542.3 million for this purpose. Even then, in the same year, COMAT Technologies was empanelled as an enrolling agency of the UIDAI,” Thomas says.

There were also questions being raised related to the contracts given to foreign companies for collecting biometrics. Critics allege that all the biometric data are lying with these foreign companies –  L1 Identity Solutions and Accenture.

“L1 Identity Solutions provides biometric services to department of defence of the US and Homeland security. The board of directors of the company are former CIA and FBI officials. Who gives the guarantee that this data will not be used against the interest of the country?”, Mathews asks.

But Nilekani calls these allegations nonsensical. “All biometrics are under the control of the Indian government, no foreign company has access to our data,” Nilekani, who feels very “proud” of the project, replied to the questions via email.

A senior advocate associated with the case stresses that through UIDAI, the government can keep tabs on people’s whereabouts. “If bank accounts are UID-enabled using biometrics, then wherever we withdraw money from is recorded. What right does the government have to know about my whereabouts? Is it a police state,” he asks.

According to the Supreme Court, UIDAI cannot impart data with anyone without the consent of the individual. “We have always stated that the data collected from residents would remain private, and not be shared with other agencies,” Nilekani writes in his blog.

Clearly, the controversy over the UID will continue to rage over the next few months. The matter is expected to come up for a final hearing either in April or in July, after the summer break.

“We want the court to strike down the UIDAI scheme,” a lawyer fighting UIDAI says. “The scheme can be saved if the court gives us certain guidelines on how to function,” Hossain holds.

 (A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph on April 2, 2014)