Modes of Inclusion (Democratic): Biometric Experiments and Administrative Preserves

[This is the second part of a discussion of the contemporary Indian commitment to electoral inclusion and its possible relation to UID/Aadhaar and the logic of financial inclusion. It draws, respectfully, on a public lecture given at Berkeley’s Center for South Asia Studies by the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, S. Y. Qureshi. For the first part of the discussion, click here.]

Mediated scenes of democratic inclusion

If India’s commitment to electoral inclusion can be narrated through extraordinary expeditions to remote Himalayan outposts and a commitment to providing access to a solitary voter deep in the Gir Forest reserve, a second and parallel theme in Dr. Qureshi’s lecture was the use of multiple modalities of surveillance to ensure access, inclusion, and the prevention of fraud or vote capture within any given polling station.

Much of his focus was on already developed forms of practice, technology, and relationship: the shift at a national scale to electronic voting; the cultivation of what I will call an electoral public, by which I mean persons addressed as co-participants in ensuring the success of democracy, in relation to widely circulating media accounts of the Election Commission (EC) as a resolutely impartial and apolitical and powerful governmental force; and the prohibition of certain officials or party workers from entering the polling place save in their individual capacity as voters.

And much of Dr. Qureshi’s focus was on new relatively low-cost technological practices of surveillance and inclusion: for example, the use of video feeds from phones or laptops to monitor who was in a given polling station.

One area of emerging change he described was the shift to biometric elections.

EPIC identity: Shikandin?

The current voting card, or EPIC [Elector’s Photo Identification Card], includes a face photograph, and the voting process is powerfully associated with the act of leaving a thumb impression, the voter marked by the “indelible” ink on his or her digit.

The EPIC cards and the indelible voter are familiar figures in what I am calling mediated scenes of electoral inclusion. Images of cards and indelibly inked thumbs saturate the Internet. Humorous instances of presumed errors, like the gendering of Mr. Mittal to the right, circulate, producing what my late colleague Alan Dundes would have argued was a kind of contemporary folklore. But the joke here depends upon the general sense of the fairness and truth of representation of the electoral system, its popular standing as a transparent governmental edifice set against the political system and its deep logic of vested interests and of what this blog has been terming duplication.

All thumbs

“Biometrics,” the digitization of presumptively unique bodily information and its incorporation into a new, advanced EPIC, was offered by the former Chief Election Commissioner as an extension of this standing and of the EC’s commitment to fairness and the ongoing de-duplication of electoral practice. I use the UID-Aadhaar imaginary of de-duplication cautiously. It is not the language of the EC.¬† If the Aadhaar rationale is that government is “leaky” (a figure I have not yet discussed and will return too, when I take up the gender of Aadhaar/UID in preparation for a paper I am writing on the same), that is, full of duplication that diverts entitlements away from the deserving poor as subjects of development, the EC is based upon a narrative of success, not failure. Here biometrics extends an already exceptional condition of state success as opposed to serving as a fix for a continual condition of state failure.

In his public lecture, Dr. Qureshi noted that the EC first tried out the creation of a biometric version of EPIC in the state of Goa: initially in a small sample and then, and successfully, statewide. Goa was an experiment, and its success directs the EC toward a national electoral biometrics.

Dr. Qureshi was asked why begin in Goa, and he noted that the state’s relatively small size made it ideal as an experimental site. He was asked why create a new biometric platform when the massive effort to create an Aadhaar card was being established. He suggested that, at least at the informal level of preliminary consultation, UID was not able to share their data with the EC.

At stake here may be many things. The much reported tussle between Nilekani’s UID and Chidambaram’s NPR establishes biometric databases as administrative preserves, to be protected and tightly controlled and fought over. Both NPR and UID rationales–of security and of de-duplication–presume that information, to be effective in governance, must be guarded and rendered safe from abuses. This conception of information, of course, runs against a powerful set of grassroots movements in India, organized as the Right to Information and its accompanying social audit. I will return in a future post to the contentious future of audit at stake in these differential conceptions of information and governance and entitlement. But here what is at stake is that the very conception of the national database as an administrative preserve — perhaps direly necessary, perhaps tragically mistaken — secretes information, prevents its sharing, and forces a particular logic of duplication: there is UID, there is NPR, and soon EPIC may or may not become a third national biometric nation-as-database.