In an event in Rajasthan held with much fanfare, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched an initiative on linking Aadhar to the delivery of subsidies and public schemes. The speeches at the event were lacklustre but the political significance of the event lay not so much in the speeches but in what this would come to mean to the UPA’s target voter. The promise of direct cash transfers in lieu of subsidies is a significant shift in a welfare regime that has been viewed as both corrupt and inefficient. To fully appreciate the likely political significance of Aadhar being linked to UPA’s flagship welfare schemes, one needs to pay attention to what has been envisaged, away from the media glare on high profile corruption and the UPA’s all-round incompetence.
The UIADI in February of 2012 put out a white paper on “Aadhar enabled Service Delivery”. The white paper is a 40 odd pages long document. While explaining how it intends to make the UID the foundation for a whole host of public transactions, the white paper gets specific on welfare programs, financial inclusion, subsidy management with a particular reference to LPG, Telecom and more. While the white paper is pretty elementary in its description on how the Government intends to use Aadhar, it practically lays out a political roadmap for how the UPA can extricate itself from the political mess it finds itself in by shifting the public discourse from negativity of corruption and incompetence to the promise of hard cash.
The Congress might very well succeed in effecting such a shift given that the anger over corruption is largely an urban middle class phenomenon. It would take much more than angry rhetoric to counter the Congress’ clever attempt at using Aadhar and the promise of “direct cash” to script its comeback ahead of the 2014 general elections. The Congress, to its advantage, also has the Nandan Nilekani wild card to play given his relatively low profile heads down tenure that has focused on execution and on laying the foundation for the most potent political weapon for the Nehru-Gandhis.
“Cash-based payments to Aadhar linked accounts” seems to be the new political mantra for the UPA’s revival ahead of what appears to be a tough electoral path over the next 2 years. The UIDAI vision document on “Aadhar for service delivery” is not short on imagining all kinds of technology solutions to make the promise of hard cash happen. From a home grown Payments Bridge to Micro-ATMs for funds withdrawal, the success of this belated attempt by the UPA to change the discourse depends on flawlessly executing on all of these technology systems.
In a column written in The Pioneer a few weeks back, this columnist had pointed how poor the UPA’s track record was on execution of its own flagship schemes. As an example, the Times of India, earlier in the week carried a rather grim story of how the UPA’s much-touted mid-day meal scheme had been mismanaged in Rajasthan. Rajasthan, which has been the laboratory of NAC left liberalism and the petri dish of every conceivable rights-based entitlement program, could not even get its execution right on many of those spending schemes. Given this dismal track record on execution, the UPA’s latest political innovation may yet suffer from poor execution in states ruled by it while Opposition-ruled states walk away with much of the political credit, given their relatively superior track record on execution.
The Congress, that has been at the receiving end over corruption and policy paralysis, will do all in its power to project the delivery of Aadhar linked Services as ‘Centrally Sponsored’ as it seeks to shift the public discourse.
The Opposition parties including the BJP-led NDA have generally been ambivalent in their attitude towards UID and Aadhar. While registering proforma opposition in Delhi, many of the BJP-ruled states have quietly focussed on execution in collaboration with UIDAI. The issue of direct cash transfers has not triggered much political debate either, given its appeal to many across the political spectrum. It would however be a political mistake to let the Congress go unchallenged on Centrally-engineered cash transfers based on Aadhar. To premise such a political challenge on the perils of Aadhar would be equally foolish as well. Privacy concerns over UID are a non-issue to the rural BPL voter. The smarter political line for the Opposition to take would be to co-opt Aadhar-linked Welfare delivery, recasting it in their own image while objecting to the Central engineering of cash transfers on the grounds of federalism.