Remember Promises of ‘Digital India’? The BJP Manifesto Doesn’t

What about digital India, citizens’ data protection, privacy, internet shutdowns? 

5 min read
Remember Promises of ‘Digital India’? The BJP Manifesto Doesn’t

Compared to 2014, what is different in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto 2019?

Apart from the fact that a singular posturing image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the manifesto cover has replaced a bevy of faces from the party’s central and state leadership in the previous edition; there is a marquee agenda of the party conspicuous by its absence from the ‘Sankalp Patra’, as the latest manifesto is called:

The absence of any major commitment on digital rights, governance of India’s cyberspace, or a road map of the party’s plans for building on the existing schemes and policies.

In short, what happened to the BJP’s agenda for a truly ‘Digital India’ ?

Here’s a list of issues that have and will continue to play a vital role in shaping India’s cyberspace... but they find almost no mention in the manifesto.


PM Modi Cites Debunked Savings Figure...Again.

First things first. Before one digs into the meat (paneer) of the manifesto, it is useful to read the opening message by PM Modi. One sentence in particular stands out for citing a figure that has long been debunked.

The trinity of Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile has weeded out over 8 crore fake beneficiaries, and prevented leakages of more than Rs 1 lakh crore.

Rs 1 lakh crore appears to be a substantial saving. So, what is the source of this claim? How did the government arrive at this claim that runs into eleven zeroes ?

The report on which this claim is based has long been debunked as factually incorrect. The genesis of this claim lies in a 2016 World Bank report called ‘World Development Report - Digital Dividends’.

In chapter 3, titled ‘Delivering Services’ (p 195) the report mentions that direct transfer of subsidies is “potentially saving over US$11 billion per year in government expenditures through reduced leakage and efficiency gains.”

By way of source, the initial footnote had cited a brief authored by Shweta Banerjee for CGAP (Consultative Group to Assist the Poor), titled, ‘From Cash to Digital Transfers in India: The Story So Far’.

This is where things get interesting.

The brief had mentioned Rs 70,000 crore or $11.2 billion as the government’s expenditure by way of cash transfers to the poor and NOT as potential savings at all!

As evident from the box, the $11.3 billion is the total value of the five major cash transfers by the Centre to the poor. At no point in the brief is this value demonstrated with evidence to be the government’s savings.

1. Aadhaar

On 26 September 2018, a five-judge Constitutional bench of the Supreme Court upheld Aadhaar as Constitutionally valid but unanimously held the use of Aadhaar authentication by private entities or “body corporate and individuals” to be unconstitutional.

The BJP-led government, keen to allow the use of Aadhaar-based eKYC by private parties, displayed remarkable alacrity in introducing the Aadhaar Amendment Bill within three months of the judgment. The Bill passed Lok Sabha on 4 January but lapsed after it failed to make it through the Rajya Sabha in February.

Not one to be deterred, the Cabinet on Thursday, 28 February, approved the promulgation of an ordinance to allow voluntary use of Aadhaar as identity proof for opening bank accounts and procuring mobile phone connections.

However, Aadhaar appears to be lost in the pages of the manifesto, failing to find any substantial mention on its future role or usage. The four times that it does find mention, they all happen to be incidental.


2. Data Protection of Citizens

The manifesto promises “to take further steps to ensure access to bank branches, payment banks and banking correspondents by creating a new data-sharing framework”. Question is, what is this framework going to be based on in the absence of a data protection law?

On 27 July, the Justice BN Srikrishna committee submitted its report along with a draft Data Protection Bill to IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Eight months since the submission of the draft bill, India still remains the only major economy in the world without a robust data protection framework.

Let alone a data protection law, the draft bill is yet to even be introduced in Lok Sabha for debate.

It appears incongruous that a government that has consistently spoken about a digitally equipped India and at times has aggressively pushed for digitisation (in the wake of demonetisation), has managed precious little when it comes to ensuring the security of its citizens’ data.

More importantly, there exists no vision for it in the BJP manifesto for the next five years either.

3. Internet Shutdowns

India wears the ignominious crown as the country with the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world.

No other nation cuts off access to the internet from its citizens more than India: 161 times since 1 January, 2018, to be precise.

2018 was the worst year for open internet in the country. While India had shut down the internet 31 times in 2016, it did so 79 times in 2017 and an unprecedented 134 times in 2018 times according to a tracker maintained by the Software Freedom Law Center India.

As per the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations’ report, the economic loss because of internet shutdowns between 2012 and 2017 has been calculated to be approximately Rs 22,154 crore.

However, there is no acknowledgment at all of this issue or how the party aims to move India out of the dubious distinction of the least open internet globally.


4. Privacy

“Privacy” finds one mention in the entire manifesto. That is still one more than the number of times words like “surveillance”, “net neutrality” or “cybersecurity” find mention in the 45-page document.

On 24 August 2017, the Supreme Court’s judgment reaffirmed privacy as a fundamental right under the Constitution. The Puttaswamy judgment witnessed a nine-judge bench unanimously hold that privacy is a fundamental right enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

With the proliferation of smartphones and internet connectivity, India, with over 500 million internet users, has emerged as a rapidly evolving data-based economy. The landmark privacy judgment also arose as part of the litigation on Aadhaar.

Be it offline or online privacy, instances of brazen violations of privacy have made headlines. A Home Ministry notification dated 20 December, authorising 10 security and intelligence agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource, kicked up a storm.

However, the manifesto contains no discussion on ensuring the privacy of Indian citizens, especially of women and minority communities.

BJP vs Congress Manifesto

The Congress, however, in its manifesto, makes a number of claims regarding digital rights and civil liberties in cyberspace that the ‘Sankal Patra’ notably omits.

Aadhaar: Congress promises to amend the Aadhaar Act in order to restrict the use of Aadhaar to subsidies, benefits and services provided by the government as was originally intended under the law.

Congress also promises that, having regard to the inherent limitations of biometric identification, alternate instruments of identification will be allowed under the law.

Net Neutrality: Uphold the principle of net neutrality to ensure the internet stays a level playing field.

Surveillance: Pass a law to provide adequate safeguards against unlawful or excessive surveillance and monitoring and provide for both independent and Parliamentary oversight.

Data Privacy: Pass a law to protect the personal data of all persons and uphold the right to privacy.

Fake News: Pass regulations to stop the spread of fake news and hate speech and punish those who misuse digital and social media.

Internet Shutdowns: Regulate the power to shut down the internet and to prevent arbitrary shut downs.

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