The Aam Aadmi Party has, in the Delhi assembly, presented a carefully constructed case alleging that EVMs can be tampered with -- and that this has been a feature of recent elections. This is a charge AAP has been levelling ever since the Punjab elections but presenting it on the floor of the House lends it a much higher degree of legitimacy and seriousness.
It has been echoed, to a lesser extent, by other parties, including the Congress. And it is, despite the repeated assertion by the Election Commission that EVMs are foolproof, becoming a key element of the opposition discourse in the country. It is also a charge that the BJP, it must be noted, threw at the EC and the dispensation of the day after its defeat in 2009.
There are enough experts -- particularly former election commissioners -- who have provided a firm and scientific rebuttal to the charges. It is beyond the scope of this piece, and the expertise of this writer, to debate the merits of the EVM. The EC has convened an all-party meeting and may organise a hackathon to allay apprehensions.
But what is of, probably, critical relevance here is the implication of a charge like this, for it strikes at not just the ruling dispensation but the very foundations of the democratic game in India.
Look around the country, into the neighbourhood.
Fragility of democracy
I come from Nepal -- which has had seven constitutions in the last seven decades. Elections have only been sporadically held, and the electoral results have often been overturned. In 1959, the country held its first election, only to see a monarch dismiss an elected government and take over in 1960.
In 1991, the country saw restoration of democracy and held its second election, but by 1996, an armed rebel group -- the Maoists -- had taken up arms against the democratic regime. Eventually, an elected parliament was dissolved and in 2005, another despotic king took over absolute power. In 2013, a second Constituent Assembly election took place wherein the Maoists lost; they immediately took to questioning the legitimacy of the results before better sense prevailed.
Or see Pakistan, where an acute civil-military imbalance has constantly threatened democracy. Elections here too have been sporadic. Electoral results have been rejected, like in 1970, which paved the way for the formation of Bangladesh. They have been undermined often, with the military dismissing elected Prime Ministers, imprisoning them and taking over power. The first smooth transfer of power from one elected government to another happened only in 2013, when Asif Ali Zardari gave way to Nawaz Sharif.
Or take Bangladesh, itself a result of an election outcome that was rejected by the West Pakistani elite. In Dhaka, the political acrimony and mistrust between the two Begums -- Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia -- is so deep that neither can trust each other with power when elections are held. That is why a caretaker arrangement was first devised to hold elections. But when Hasina decided that her government would hold elections, in early 2014, Zia boycotted the elections. Political instability and violence continues, as the government and the opposition remain at loggerheads over the terms on which elections are to be held.
There are huge variations in the history and political systems of all these countries. But there is a common pattern -- the lack of systemic democratic stability, and that lack of democratic stability comes from an absence in the faith of the democratic mechanism. Elections and electoral outcomes have not been considered sacred; there have been enough forces which have questioned the legitimacy of these electoral processes; supporters of one force or the other have been only too keen to accept that election outcomes do not represent the will of the people; and that means it can be overturned by means fair and foul.
Eroding faith, undermining democracy
Why is this relevant?
AAP’s charges may seem technical in nature. But they are profoundly political, with deep political implications. What they are suggesting is that they do not have faith in recent electoral processes and outcomes; that these do not represent the will of the people. They are questioning the rules of the game which all parties accepted before they entered the game, and are claiming that these rules need to be looked at afresh.
Now make no mistake -- they are entitled to do so. It is legitimate to ask questions of all institutions in a democracy. It is acceptable to articulate doubts -- including about electoral processes. And the EC will have to go the extra mile to allay these doubts.
But while doing so, a party must be really careful and must have solid body of evidence, for it can erode faith that its supporters -- or voters of those who have lost the election -- have in the system.
This erosion of faith has major consequences -- it can alienate a section of the electorate from the democratic process; it can erode the legitimacy and authority of the government of the day; it can even give rise to movements which decide to seek an alternative path including violence because after all, they can argue democratic outcomes do not reflect the will of the people and are fraudulent.
India is in the middle of a deeply politically polarised moment. It is natural for supporters and adversaries of the government to be invested in the political battles of the day, and even see each other as adversaries who need to be defeated at all costs. But what unites them -- and has been so important for the country’s democratic stability as opposed to its neighbours -- is the faith in the electoral process and its legitimacy.
AAP can question it, but it must be aware of the risks. For, it undermines the very democratic project that enabled its rise.