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Supreme Court notice to EC on Oppn plea for VVPAT scrutiny

The pleacontended the VVPAT safeguard had been ‘rendered nugatory in operational reality’ by the EC guideline

india Updated: Mar 15, 2019 23:48 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
The court gave the petitioners the liberty of serving the notice to the EC through its secretary and directed the presence of an officer to assist the SC on the next date of hearing. (Parwaz Khan /HT PHOTO)

The Supreme Court asked the Election Commission (EC) on Friday to respond to a petition filed by leaders of 21 Opposition parties seeking random verification of at least half the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) using the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) in each assembly segment or assembly constituency.

The leaders have also asked the court to quash the commission’s notification that provides for a paper audit trail — a safeguard was introduced because of the suspicions of some Opposition parties that EVMs were susceptible to tampering — in only one randomly selected polling station in an assembly constituency.

While issuing the notice to the EC, a bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi said it would hear the matter on March 25 — roughly two weeks before the general elections kick off on April 11.

The court gave the petitioners the liberty of serving the notice to the EC through its secretary and directed the presence of an officer to assist the SC on the next date of hearing.

Senior advocate and Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi appeared for the petitioners, including Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, former Union minister and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien, and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.

Singhvi contended that the VVPAT safeguard had been “rendered nugatory in operational reality” by the EC guideline. “This infinitesimal fractional mandatory check made the availability of VVPATs superfluous and illusory,” he argued.

He called the petition a “remarkable convergence and consensus of opinion among the top-most leadership of the country reflecting over 65-70% of the votes cast in the last election” and that it “demonstrated the vital significance of the issue raised in the petition.”

The petition quoted the SC’s 1975 verdict in the Indira Nehru Gandhi vs Raj Narain case to bolster the argument that free and fair elections are part of basic structure of the Constitution.

In a 2013 judgment, the SC held that VVPAT was an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections. This judgment, argue the petitioners, made the system inherent and intrinsic to the very basic structure of the Constitution.

The Election Commission did not respond to queries asking for a comment.

“The impugned guideline by EC hits at the basic structure of the constitution, making VVPAT completely ineffective and merely ornamental in nature. It reduces the safeguards and substantive essence of the judgements of the top court. The petitioners submit that a procedural or executive instruction in the form of guidelines cannot render the main substantive safeguard nugatory, more so where the latter traces itself back to a constitutional provision,” stated the petition.

VVPAT machines, attached to EVMs, display the name of the candidate and his/her symbol on a piece of paper after a vote is cast. The voter can see the paper through a glass display for seven seconds before it drops into a sealed container. While announcing the schedule of this summer’s general elections on Sunday, the EC announced that VVPATs will be used in all polling stations along with EVMs.

The leaders approached the top court after the poll body refused to accept their representation in February. The EC is awaiting a report from the Indian Statistical Institute on an adequate sample for matching the votes in EVMs with those in VVPATs.

The BJP too did not respond for request for comment.

First Published: Mar 15, 2019 23:48 IST