By stonewalling calls for transparency about the workings of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the Election Commission of India is helping the Aam Aadmi Party, Congress and other opposition parties mainstream the view that the BJP may never lose an election in India again. Left unaddressed, this issue will cast a shadow on recent state election results, including UP’s, and potentially undermine the legitimacy of the Modi government. It can rally Opposition forces and usher in an era of political instability.
To get a sense of this, let’s assess where the debate is. For one, there are credible doubts about the reliability of EVMs that have been expressed by legitimate bodies and expert authorities in India. The Bombay High Court ordered a forensic examination of machines used in a 2014 Assembly election while the Uttarakhand High Court has decreed the seizure of EVMs used in seven Assembly constituencies in the state. This assessment based on academic literature on EVMs points out that the Election Commission (EC) has refused independent checks on the machines. A ‘vulnerability analysis’ in 2010 revealed that no cryptographic mechanisms were encoded into the central processing unit. There is also no independent record of the reliability of the machines currently being procured by the EC. A former chief secretary of Delhi has written that “the possibility of tampering exists”; he says that the writing of the programme on the EVM’s chip by public sector companies (which make them) is no safeguard “since ultimately a minister can control them”. Arvind Jha, a tech entrepreneur, has written to the EC offering ways to assess the hardware and software – and spelt out five hypotheses against which the EVMs ought to be tested.
The stakes were thus very high when the EC convened an all-party meeting on May 12 to discuss the issue and allay doubts. However the outcome seems anything but satisfactory. The Commission has said that all future state and national polls will have a verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) that records the candidate and symbol a person voted for. But by assuring VVPAT for future elections is the EC conceding that there’s been a problem with past and recent elections? There is also the clause that the voter cannot take the VVPAT receipt home. The EC said that a fixed percentage of polling booths will mandatorily correlate paper trail slips with EVM results. It’s not clear if this form of randomising will be enough for experts as the issue here is about strategic and selective manipulation of EVMs. The EC has said it will hold a challenge at a future date, but whether it will be a hackathon of the kind that experts recommend still remains in doubt. The bottom line is that the public needs a transparent testing of the manufacturing and handling of EVMs – and there is none in sight yet.
How will this play out politically, hereon? AAP will circulate the view about the unreliability of EVMs effectively to millions of its followers, including on social media – it claims that its Facebook page has a reach of 150 million users. Opposition parties like the Congress, BSP and SP have joined in – taken together this is not an inconsiderable collective.
The BJP, which is currently not questioning the EVMs, will make this about Arvind Kejriwal and portray the EVM story as a diversion from the corruption allegations that the AAP leader is facing. Kejriwal has maintained his silence and instead of speaking from a defensive vantage, he has deftly shifted the ground to a bigger issue in the scheme of things – the future of India’s democracy.
The BJP will need to watch the evolving perception game carefully. The longer the EVM controversy drags on the more the chances for the Opposition to suggest that the BJP is ruling aggressively because it knows it cannot lose elections. If that line of criticism takes hold, it will lead to a total breakdown of trust within the political class and society at large – and if elections, a vital instrument for settling differences, are themselves rendered unreliable, then India will be staring at a constitutional crisis.
The stakes thus cannot be higher. The EC should pull out all the stops and conduct independent tests for the manufacturing and handling of EVMs to restore its own credibility and preserve India’s democracy.
The BJP may also reflect on personalising the system the way it is. NDA’s tenure has been marked by all authority being invested in the Prime Minister. All major policy decisions are said to originate in South Block and correspondingly Cabinet ministers, the bureaucracy and other institutions, including the Election Commission have seen a loss of stature. The flip side of such diminution is that when it is in the government’s interest for institutions like the EC to assert their independence, the “act” no longer seems convincing – since the EC too cannot be impervious to perceptions of institutional decline. The point about having checks and balances in a democracy is not only about restraining executive power but also allowing independent institutions to add to the executive’s legitimacy, thereby placing its authority on firmer ground rather than on political and bureaucratic submission.
Lastly, a point about Kejriwal. It may be too soon to write him off. Yes, he has lost recent elections in Punjab and Delhi, the attempt to pay his legal counsel Ram Jethmalani from Delhi state coffers was a PR disaster, he lost the liberals with the way he handled Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan – and AAP spokespersons have now been reportedly told not to appear with Yadav on TV panels. Some of the leaders Kejriwal has nurtured within the AAP aren’t kosher for many – the party now sorely seems to lack intellectual muscle, beyond a few exceptions. Kejriwal also needs to answer to the serious corruption allegations. That said he and the AAP have again picked up an issue that generates possibilities for opposition politics. In the immediate aftermath of UP elections few thought a discussion on EVMs would gain traction. Now a new narrative questioning the EC’s credibility in the age of BJP’s dominance is emerging, with grave consequences for India’s democracy.
The views expressed are personal. The author tweets at @SushilAaron