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Second principles do not negate the first principle (Hindu )

Responding to the missives about the editorial pages

I have not stopped marvelling at this newspaper’s uniqueness ever since I became its Readers’ Editor nearly five years ago. While my fellow news ombudsmen in the Organisation of News Ombudsmen talk about the complaints they receive about their news coverage, I have the distinction of getting the maximum missives about the editorial pages. At a deeper level, this repudiates the assumption of some that our attention spans have reduced in the age of digital platforms.

Using Rawls to explain EVMs

On March 27, 2017, this newspaper carried a lead article titled “Poor vote-getters blame the tools” by the former Chief Election Commissioner, N. Gopalaswami. He explained that criticisms of the reliability of electronic voting machines (EVMs) were unwarranted, and explained the technical details that make these machines tamper-proof. It was a straightforward argument against some political leaders who have questioned the reliability of these machines.

M.G. Devasahayam, a retired bureaucrat, felt that the article was limited in its scope, making it only a technical and party issue. He wanted other aspects of a democracy explored in an article that would go beyond the arguments put forth by two former Chief Election Commissioners: N. Gopalaswami in this newspaper and M.S. Gill in another newspaper. When The Hindu wrote a subsequent editorial, “Trust the EVMs: allegations by politicians have no real basis” (March 28, 2017), he felt that the newspaper was toeing the official line without really exploring the issue fully.

Mr. Devasahayam would have found an answer in a new section on the Oped page called Conceptual, in the one that appeared on March 27, 2017. Titled “The difference principle”, it explained the second part of the second principle of John Rawls’s theory of justice. Rawls’s first principle guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the liberty of others. However, in the difference principle, Rawls argues that inequalities are legitimate so long as they are designed to yield the maximum benefit to the least advantaged members of a society. However, the difference principle shall remain subordinate to the first principle. The arguments in favour of the EVMs are akin to Rawls’s second principle. They do not take away the other components of democratic practices, which is the first principle.

Editorial on Aadhaar

Another reader, Dr. V. Visvanathan, felt that the editorial “Unique distinction” (March 29, 2017) was misleading in its suggestion that the Supreme Court observed that “the government is free to ‘press’ for Aadhaar for ‘non-welfare’ transactions or activities.” He recollected the October 15, 2015 order of a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, which is categorical that the UID can be used, only voluntarily, in six schemes, and nowhere else. Dr. Visvanathan’s contention was that the oral observation by the Chief Justice’s Bench comprising three judges cannot override the order passed by a five-member Bench. He wrote: “The Hindu is certainly entitled to its opinion regarding Aadhaar, but it should not mislead the reader on the legality of the recent barrage of government orders making Aadhaar mandatory.”

There are two issues here. First, the editorial did observe that the oral observations by the judges are not judicial orders: “While the Supreme Court’s observations do not amount to a judicial order, they dispel some of the ambiguity relating to the scope, even future, of Aadhaar. In its interim order in October 2015 the court made it clear that the Aadhaar scheme cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided ‘one way or the other’.” The second is the inference: “But it has set the stage for the 12-digit Unique Identification (UID) numbers being used as the basic identity proof for all residents.”

I think Dr. Visvanathan has a valid point. The editorial should have waited for the final orders to arrive at a conclusion rather than inferring that the stage has been set for the UID to be used as the basic identity proof for all residents. As a reporter, I was witness to many a stunning open court observation by learned judges. But in most cases, the conclusions one drew from them proved wrong when the final judgment was delivered.

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