Mr Nilekani, can you now feel Team Anna’s frustration?
The unique ID project that you head is slowly being whittled down. If they can do this to someone of your stature, imagine what they can do to the hapless Team Anna!
Dear Mr Nilekani
Two and a half years ago, when you were appointed to head the Unique ID project, we celebrated it – for many reasons.
For one, it signalled that the Manmohan Singh government, fresh from its election victory, was ready to do business. Just the fact that it had handed over the responsibility of implementing so important a project of assigning a national identity card to every Indian, which had implications for everything from national security to the effective implementation of social welfare policies, to someone who had a proven track record in corporate excellence and could harness the power of technology suggested earnestness on the government’s part.
We had long been inured to seeing luddite netas and babus monopolise the policy and implementation space in government without a long-term vision or a sense of operational efficiency. Although there are instances of technocrats working the levers of the creaking bureaucratic machine and raising the bar – the name of E Sreedharan springs to mind – they were the exceptions that validated stereotypical notions of governmental inefficiency.
The induction of stellar professionals from the private sector, with a record of working in challenging corporate environments, a 360-degree view of a dramatically changing world and high standards of personal integrity counted, for us, as a fruitful harnessing of our national resources. We had hoped that your success in the unique ID project would inspire many more corporate titans with a track record of building great institutions – Deepak Parekh, perhaps, or S Ramadorai – to get involved in policymaking and implementation, and that they would be welcomed by the system.
Today, those hopes have been compelled to take a reality check.
Yesterday, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance rejected the National Identification Authority of India (NIAI) Bill, effectively giving your unique ID project a kick in the butt.
For sure, panel members had forceful arguments to make in defence of their rejection of the Aadhar Bill: politicians and special interest groups have unsurpassed skills when it comes to sabotaging or slowing down legislation that serves a greater common good. Witness the unending drama about bringing an effective Lokpal Bill to check corruption, which has dragged on for decades. It needed a mass uprising, channelled by Team Anna, to finally get politicians to focus their minds – and even today they are still up to their dirty tricks to weaken the Lokpal.
We’re sure you find all these political and bureaucratic games intensely frustrating: you signed on to oversee this project in the belief that you were serving a larger national cause. And yet you find yourself boxed in and stymied by petty turf wars between politicians and bureaucrats. And even the Prime Minister, whose whole-hearted backing you appear to have, is unable to create enabling conditions for you to get the job done.
We share your agony and your frustration.
We only wish you would also share some of the frustrations of us common folks who too have been banging our heads against the stone walls of the government and the bureaucracy. I specifically allude to the frustration of Team Anna, which you appeared to belittle in an interview not so long ago.
At the height of Team Anna’s fast in August to get a strong Lokpal institution in place, you went on air and ridiculed Anna’s campaign as “naïve and simplistic”. You argued then that while a Lokpal was necessary, Team Anna had been “drinking the Kool-Aid”. You then hard sold your unique ID project as being a better device to combat corruption at the grassroots level, where the common folks interact with the government.
And although you said you empathised with people's frustration over corruption, you argued that Team Anna's protest was not justified. In every other way too, the overarching tenor of your comments suggested that you were batting for the government – and offering politicians an alibi.
“When a very serious parliamentary body (the parliamentary standing committee) has taken it (the Lokpal Bill) up for consideration, why are we not working through that system?” you asked rhetorically. “I have visited Parliaments in the UK, the US and France; I’ve met with top leaders across the world. The standing committee procedures are second to none. Let us respect that.”
You even suggested that the widely held negative perceptions about politicians were unfair. “I’ve been in public life for two years and my respect for politicians has gone up . I think they are extremely hardworking,” you said. “We have to respect our politicians.”
I dare say that after what the parliamentary standing committee and the politicians have done to slow down or sabotage your unique ID project, your estimation of them is somewhat different.
Remember, Mr Nilekani, this is what is happening to someone of your stature: you had everything going for you – a high profile, well-earned respect, the prime minister’s public backing. You’re convinced in your heart that what you’re doing is vitally important for the nation. And yet, you’re being slowly checkmated by the political system. If they could do this to you, imagine what they can do to powerless nobodies who are banging their heads against a system with entrenched vested interests.
Imagine the frustration of Team Anna, which is an outsider to the system, widely reviled by politicians for daring to challenge the corrupt system on which they thrive, and which has no political backing. And yet, when it goes on protest to pressure the government into acting, you called it “naïve and simplistic”.
I trust that after what happened to you, you have a better understanding of the frustrations of Team Anna.
Mr Nilekani, not all is lost. You can still redeem yourself in the eyes of those who yearn for a strong Lokpal Bill. Anna will be on a fast once again on Sunday to protest the continuing efforts to dilute the Lokpal Bill.
Come and join us. Let’s share stories of our frustrations: you can tell us about the obstacles to the unique ID project, and we’ll tell you why we are on the streets once again.
And together we'll find a way to get the system to listen to all of us.
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