New Delhi: The third and final great freedom that is under threat today is the freedom of individualism. The foundation of democracy is based on what colloquially may be called collective individualism. In operation, masses of individuals who share cultures and ways of life, languages and lived experiences, come together to create a democratic state. The state exists for the individual, not the other way round. Because the individual cannot manage the external environment all on his or her own, he cedes a very small and finite part of his individual self to a shared entity called the state in which other individuals are share- and stakeholders. From the shared portion of the individual flow the further principles of rights and duties. Rights and duties have to be balanced to create a moderate state. There is an informal consensus on this between the individual and the state. Where there is a breach, the individual has an equal right to restitution as the state. But this arrangement does not deprive the individual of his core individuality, a major portion of which has been retained by the individual and not ceded to the state. This fine balance of individual rights and state obligations has now become skewed, with the state under Narendra Modi gaining the upper hand. Genuine democrats should be worried.

The instruments of state control of the individual were established at the very beginning of the republic and supplemented at regular intervals thereafter. At the time of establishment, they seemed innocuous, and the state did not appear to be geared to harness them for authoritarian purposes. But the danger was always there. For example, this writer has steadfastly been opposed to state awards for literature, the arts, cinema, and so forth. Jawaharlal Nehru transplanted this concept from the Soviet Union in much the same manner that he borrowed the Five Year Plan. Being essentially a democrat, one of the rare political leaders intimately knowledgeable about and influenced by high art, Nehru did not take state control of art and literature seriously. But state awards came to occupy an important and prestigious place in the patronage system that grew and expanded under lesser leaders than Nehru. Undeserving men and women won these awards because they were part of the ruling hierarchy or had brown-nosed their way to prominence and literary eminence. Like constituents of sleeper cells, these literary state celebrities rose in unison to manufacture the “award wapsi” controversy just prior to the Bihar assembly election. Rather than abolish this whole farce and allow art and literature to find its own individual voice, the Modi government sees advantage for the state in continuing with the old ways. If there were Congress writers, poets and painters prior, now there will be those who worship the new gods. Indeed, Prime Minister Modi has stated that the collaboration of art and the nation-state is a valuable and worthy enterprise. To most people, this would not matter. But those who are creative and visualize their life aims being coterminous with creativity should sit up and take note. India is falling behind in art and literature. State intervention is mass-producing mediocrity. With rare exceptions, Indian films are trash. And not very subtly, art and literature are being suborned to the state project of nationalism. This is a trend which is bound to undermine democracy and rational policy-making.

Linked with the subversion of art and literature is the minimization of individual spaces with devices of digitization like Aadhaar. In its original conception and notification, Aadhaar was voluntary. The Narendra Modi government has used its Lok Sabha majority to deem it mandatory and further made linkage of PAN and Aadhaar compulsory for tax returns. The matter is under litigation and coming for final hearing and disposal in the Supreme Court soon. The Modi government’s argument is that the linkage will make biometric data available to nail tax evaders and give fillip to a cashless economy. Even taking this argument at face value, it does not square with the situation on the ground. Not just tricksters but fairly ordinary persons for ordinary reasons have several Aadhaar cards and presumably ways have been discovered to fudge biometric data. The ingenuity of the Indian mind in bending rules has no parallel in the world. A rapacious system has made people dishonest. Millions will escape the dragnet that the government hopes to cast with its PAN-Aadhaar brainwave. And, already, there are shocking media reports of thousands of crores being channelled through perfectly legal routes on which doubtless no taxes have been imposed or paid. Where there are taxes, there will be evaders. If GST does push up taxes as experts fear, evasions will grow. No silver bullet has been ever devised against cheating the system. Harassment of honest taxpayers is no justification for catching crooks. There is no substitute for painstaking and unromantic forensic and investigative works. Classical police and detection methods have to be employed to catch evaders. Technology can aid the process. Technology cannot become the process. This simple and age-old wisdom is beyond the ken of this government.

If, of course, you don’t accept at face value the justification for mandatory Aadhaar and the linkage to PAN, you fear perhaps for individual liberties, and this writer fully shares the apprehension. Democracy is founded on transparency, consensus and consent. Using its brute majority in the Lower House, the Narendra Modi government enforced compulsory Aadhaar and the linkage to PAN. By doing so, it went beyond the individual’s contract with the state. Rather than an individual owning the state, or rather his share of the state, the state took a life of its own and returned to own the individual. Biometric data is intensely personal and individualistic. To share or not share it with the state has to be the individual’s decision, and any consent has to be informed consent. The Manmohan Singh government authorized Aadhaar on that basis. Nandan Nilekani constructed Aadhaar on clear and unambiguous policy orders of voluntariness. How can the Narendra Modi government upend this sacred prior contract? Contracts, and more so social contracts, cannot be unilaterally altered and subverted. The government’s counter to these executive transgressions is scandalous. During the Supreme Court hearing, the Attorney General averred that the state owned the individual’s body; and that Aadhaar would now be purposed and deployed in a manner that the individual could not hide from the state. What does he mean? Is the Indian state under Narendra Modi becoming a police state, where individual rights cease to exist? Is this an inadvertent admission of authoritarianism in the most immediate future?

To be continued....

Read “Rating the PM - 1”, “2,” “3,” “4,” and “5” here , here, here, hereand here.