.
.
.
.

Row over India’s electronic voting machines leaves electors dazed

Mahesh Trivedi

Published: Updated:

The brouhaha over use of smart electronic voting machines (EVMs) in India’s legislative elections has reached an ear-splitting pitch, leaving the 850 million constituents confused and confounded.

All set for the five-year general polls scheduled for 2019, India’s Election Commission has time and again asseverated that the voter-friendly devices are tamper-proof and cannot be manipulated, but opposition parties have been demanding a ban on the high-tech gizmos and want the poll panel to return to the good old paper ballot system.

Browned off by the belligerent mood of seven national and 35 recognized state parties bent on blowing the whistle, the exasperated commission has now thrown a gauntlet before them and invited politicos of all hues to examine the EVMs from June 3 onwards and show how the indigenously-manufactured machines can be hacked.

The opposition parties in India ruled by the National Democratic Alliance, a center-right political alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), first made a stink about ‘faulty’ EVMs in March when the BJP registered spectacular victories in four of the five states that held assembly polls and again in municipal elections in Delhi.

Congress leaders like Arjun Modhwadia (centre, bespectacled) have made several anti-EVM representations to the authorities. (Supplied)
Congress leaders like Arjun Modhwadia (centre, bespectacled) have made several anti-EVM representations to the authorities. (Supplied)

Memo to President

A Congress-led delegation of opposition parties, chiefly the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), had even submitted a memorandum to President Pranab Mukherjee on the alleged irregularities in the eye-catching contraptions 1.4 million of which will be used in the world’s biggest democratic exercise in 2019.

AAP media coordinator Harshil Nayak told this correspondent how, on May 9, a party lawmaker used a dummy machine and demonstrated in the Delhi assembly the ways in which EVMs could be tinkered with in India, the largest participatory democracy of the world with about 850 million registered voters.

Senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh argued that if the accounts of even the Reserve Bank of Bangladesh and the Reserve Bank of Russia could be hacked, then EVM machines could certainly be hacked. After all, the Narendra Modi government’s fetish for technological tools makes political parties much more fearful of the possibility of mass-scale misuse of EVMs in the 2019 polls.

The opposition intensified its campaign for scrapping the EVMs after a video showed that the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machine was dispensing BJP slips in Bhind district of Madhya Pradesh state.

Though the ECI, hailed as the most efficient election body in the world, suspended 19 officials involved in the incident, it asserted that it was impossible to fiddle with EVMs and VVPAT machines.

Polling officers learn to handle the EVM from experts in Gauhati, India, on March 11, 2006. (AP)
Polling officers learn to handle the EVM from experts in Gauhati, India, on March 11, 2006. (AP)

Live demo

Following the growing chorus against EVMs, a parliamentary committee summoned senior officials of the poll panel to discuss the issue on May 19, and the next day, the ECI held a live demonstration of how the twin machines worked and also exhibited a short film on their exclusive features.

According to Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi, EVMs have been successfully used in conducting 107 general elections to the state legislative assemblies and three Lok Sabha polls over the last 23 years.

“Using EVMs means doing away with paper ballots, and in turn, saving millions of trees from being cut. It makes the entire process of voting simpler--a click on the button and your vote is registered.” What’s more, the battery-run gadgets are cost-effective lasting for 15 years without electricity and are lighter and portable compared to the huge ballot boxes, argue BJP supporters.

Gujarat election commissioner Varesh Sinha also reasoned that since the EVMs were stand-alone, non-networked, one time-programmable, and being neither computer controlled nor connected to the internet or any network, they could not be hacked.

Indian polling officials with Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) on the way to a polling station near India’s northeastern state of Manipur. (AFP)
Indian polling officials with Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) on the way to a polling station near India’s northeastern state of Manipur. (AFP)

First in world

“It will also be a matter of pride that India will become the first country to deploy 100 percent VVPATs in the world, an element that was missing in many countries, including the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland,” he said. But, for the hoi polloi, there is an instinctive aversion to technology that is simple to operate and yet difficult to comprehend.

“An average voter does not understand the EVM technology and will always be apprehensive that it can be tampered with by experts or by powerful behind-the-scenes agents,” said Jitendra Prajapati, an accountant in Ahmedabad, and dubbed EVMs as a trick to deprive people of their voting rights.

Activist Roshan Shah has dashed off an open letter to the poll panel chief asking him 10 tough EVM-related questions. (Supplied)
Activist Roshan Shah has dashed off an open letter to the poll panel chief asking him 10 tough EVM-related questions. (Supplied)

Activist’s letter

No wonder, Roshan Shah, a right-to-information activist, has dashed off an open letter to Chief Election Commissioner Zaidi asking him 10 tough questions, which the ECI has left unanswered.

Shah, who has taken on influential politicians and senior government officials for their failure to keep promises, wonders mainly why results of polling by state-of-the-art EVMs are not declared on the same day.

As the commission rolls up its sleeves to get ready for the 2019 hustings battle to choose 545 lawmakers, Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia stresses that authenticity, transparency and reliability should be the hallmarks of the electioneering system at the 1-million-odd polling booths.

All said and done, the poll panel will do well to assure the Indian electorate that it will strive to assuage their fears of their franchise going down the drain in the cutting-edge EVMs, and, if misgivings persist, will return to the ballot paper—a practice still followed in several democracies in the West.