Manmohan Singh is just not able to have the final word in his own cabinet. The latest instance where cabinet ministers are fighting each other, after a formal decision of the cabinet pertains to the Unique Identity number project, which was a pet subject of the prime minister himself.
Home Minister P Chidambaram has challenged the cabinet decision saying it has grave security concerns for the nation. He has demanded a special session of the cabinet to discuss the threat and his letter has been leaked fully to the media. As both Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee backed this project two years ago, Chidambaram's frontal assault has again shown the deep divisions within the UPA2, which neither Manmohan Singh nor Congress president Sonia Gandhi are unable to resolve.
The project was entrusted to Information technology pioneer Nandan Nilekhani, who was the managing director of Infosys. Like other imports from the private sector, Nilekani adjusted to the ways the government works, and projected an ambitious plan to provide an identity number to everyone residing within the country's borders. Nilekani arranged for the biometric details like fingerprint to be captured on the database so that each person is easily identifiable by his number. Nilekhani hoped to cover the 120 crore population in a span of five years, if he got enough funds from the government. He worked out a scheme where people could go to panchayat offices, post offices and bank branches to get themselves registered.
The strong opposition from Chidambaram, whose own ministry is capturing the biometric details of citizens for the national population register has paralysed Nilekani's project. Both the Planning Commission and the home ministry are engaged in a war of words with each other. Chidambaram argues that the unique identification project is full of holes, and it can be misused by anyone.
He says his ministry which deals with internal security had not given full approval. He is unhappy that the nodal ministry is the planning commission, whose chairman is the Prime Minister himself. But Chidambaram says lot of foreigners, especially Bangladeshis, will get themselves an unique identification number, and it will be difficult to distinguish citizens from non citizens.
While the census officials visit every household to identify citizens, the unique identification scheme allows residents to come to selected centres and data is captured by non governmental agencies.
Nilekani has counter argued that the unique identification number does not confine citizenship rights, but would only entitle the numbered person to get access to government services, whereas citizenship will be determined by the existing procedures of the home and external affairs ministries. Chidambaram feels the census department, which has a permanent machinery to enumerate the citizens once in a decade has the perfect machinery to decide who is a citizen. He is not bothered that already the biometric data of ten million people has been captured and four lakhs numbers have been issued. More than Rs.700 crores has been spent on the project and Nilekani has sought another Rs. 10,000 crores for capturing the biometric details of the entire population.
Chidambaram has cleverly asked for a cabinet meeting, so that there can be strong polarisation. Ministers close to prime minister said Chidambaram had tried to dilute the authority of the prime minister, who is already under attack from the opposition that Singh has no control over his cabinet members. Singh has to deftly handle the challenge posed by Chidambaram to his pet scheme.
Tailpiece: However Chidambaram has found strong support from BJP. Interestingly saffron party boycotted the home minister continuously in the winter session of parliament, demanding his resignation over Chidambaram's invovlement in the 2G spectrum scam.