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.

Modes of Inclusion (Democratic): Electoral heroism

The rather erudite and accomplished S. Y. Qureshi, until this past June (2012) the Chief Election Commissioner of India, gave a lecture this week at Berkeley’s Center for South Asia Studies.

The administrative gesture:              S. Y. Qureshi

Dr. Qureshi’s title was “An Undocumented Wonder: Managing the World’s Biggest Elections.” At stake, in other words, was the management of scale.

And, given the apt description of such enormous scale as wondrous, at stake was what is often termed the sublime. Jawaharlal Nehru famously repositioned the sublime in terming massive dams the temples of modern India. Perhaps elections are the new sublime, the dams of neoliberal India.  And yet elections have been a feature of a national aesthetics for a long time. After the talk I had the opportunity to speak with him at some length.

This post is in conversation with Dr. Qureshi’s formal comments during his talk. Though his informal conversation with me was no less critical in pushing my thinking on biometrics and its associated modes of “inclusion,” I will respect the latter’s informality and confidentiality.

Such caution is not usual for me: I have long argued for an expansive practice in which virtually any encounter is–must be–“fieldwork,”a 24/7 anthropology-as-necessarily-poor-boundaries approach. And obviously, even conversations that cannot be directly represented inform the direction of one’s thinking and work. This growing reliance of mine, however, on caution, withholding discussion, and indirection is I think both a feature of power–of working with high-level officials in situations where both I and they are conscious of the stakes in public representation–and of my own growing dependence on the good will of state administrators as I take on greater responsibility for the Center for South Asia Studies and for research access and funding for students and colleagues.

But I do think that much can be done to think with the formal public lecture, preserving both the hospitality and respect one offers to a visiting speaker and the critical engagement, and again respect, one offers to a reader.

Dr. Qureshi’s comments, accompanied by a power point type slide show, began with accounts of what I will call electoral heroism. I neither use the term ironically nor as paean, but descriptively. Qureshi gave two kinds of examples in which the Electoral Commission [hereafter EC] of India, charged at the Central (federal) government level with organizing, managing, and governing the conduct of elections, went to great pains to ensure that every Indian had access to elections:

(1) situations in which parties of EC workers had to undertake arduous journeys, such as treks over snowy Himalayan paths in Ladakh in weather in which air transport was impossible; and

(2) situations in which even in remote and depopulated areas where only a single voter remained, the EC would establish a polling station.

Radical inclusion: Guru Bharatdas Darshandas, the only voter in Banej in a remote area of the Gir Forest, Gujarat

The effect of such accounts was to remind us of the quality and force of Indian democracy and the at times extraordinary efforts needed to maintain its promise to provide an accessible vote to, quite literally, the last man. In a word, inclusion.

Or last woman: I have earlier written in No Aging in India of the ubiquitous appearance, at election times across India, of news photos of old women hobbling or being carried to the election station or standing at the ballot box, peering at it with the weakened and bespectacled vision of old age. In that book I tried to give something of genealogy for this old woman of the polls, her relation to other figures of old women that proliferate in north India and Bengal over the long nineteenth century. But the simplest explanation for her appearance is the most obvious. In India, she promises, even the most frail or socially marginal person has the power to remake governments and to redistribute power. (Conversely, she can of course be taken in the opposite direction: suggesting that the voter has little more power than a socially marginal and ailing old woman.)

The scene of inclusion: our old woman of the polls

Indeed, Dr. Qureshi showed several such photos of old men and women, particularly women.

It is worth reflecting on the old woman of the polls before proceeding further. She reminds us, first, that “inclusion” is not only a particular gesture of these times of individuated, encompassing neoliberal governance. The newspaper editors who created and circulated her (this image from the late 1980s of an old, frail, bespectacled, and Muslim woman is from the Times of India) were participating in a rendering of the nation-state as a radically inclusive order. She is of course a citizen and the image participates in a particularly Indian secular liberalism founded in the citizen as its ground and promise.

Her form will recur with UID/Aadhaar in a different figure of inclusion but again positioned on an old woman’s body, in scenes of the old woman as marginal subject being de-duplicated by having her irises scanned or photo taken or fingerprint data “captured.”

Inclusion in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh: our old woman of the card

With Aadhaar, of course, the “Resident” has replaced the citizen as the subject of inclusion, as I have discussed at some length in this blog.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the earlier photo of the old woman of the polls is the disembodied spectral hand, evocative of the Beast’s dream palace in Cocteau’s Belle et la Bête, directing the woman’s gaze and ours to the yawning hole where her franchise is to be placed. Inclusion, we are shown, is here a directed process. Who, or what is the agent, the master of inclusion in the dream palace of the nation’s democratic promise?


Perhaps, as we move from the old woman of the polls to the old woman of the Aadhaar card, this is the wrong question to ask. Again: what concepts, what understanding of politics and “the social,” of ethics and and of maneuver, might be needed as we move from the national subject as a citizenry to the national subject as a database?

Let me return, in the next post, to the lecture by Dr.Qureshi, and to his thoughts on the future of voting and, indeed, on the value of biometrics for the ongoing heroic commitment of the nation to democratic inclusion.