Free and fair elections form the bedrock of our constitutionally guaranteed democracy. As vigilant citizens, it is desirable to adopt the stance- “In God we trust, everything else requires evidence”.
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By our Bureau Chief, Vijaylakshmi Nadar, Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi, TIO: There are several reasons, why the Arvind Kejriwal led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will emerge victorious on February 11, when counting for Delhi polls begins, despite the specter of tampered Electronic Voting Machines (EVM’s) looming large. Though claims by senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) including the Minister for Home Affairs, Amit Shah and Member of Parliament (MP) Manoj Tiwari, that all exit polls will be proved wrong and that they will form the government with 48 seats, have raised questions of the fairness of the voting process through EVM’s once again.
EVM’s have been banned by all developed countries, including Germany, Netherlands, UK and several states of USA, and yet the BJP continues to belittle demands by opposition to return to the ballots. The success of the voting process depends on three factors. The process should be transparent, verifiable and a secret. The ballot system of voting fulfilled all the criteria, where the candidate could see clearly where his/her vote was going, the counting was done in the presence of their representative and secrecy was maintained by mixing the ballots.
In the EVM process, however, if there is a paper trail, the voter is able to see where the vote is going, but there is no transparency in the counting process. If there is a mismatch in the number of votes counted and polled, to get it verified through the paper trail is a tedious process. There is no physical count of votes and there is no secrecy maintained because counting is done ward wise, where a voting pattern can clearly be established by the candidate, resulting in the victimization of the voters.
The present scare of 48 seats is also because It was Amit Shah who had predicted a win of 350 seats for the BJP, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when there was no wave whatsoever in favor of the incumbent government. Most exit polls had predicted a win of 180-200 seats only for BJP.
Prime minister Narendra Modi got a second term, despite several misgivings about the role of the ECI, over reports of EVM’s being found in hotels, on the roads, somebody’s houses, of EVM’s being replaced in strong rooms and of the Supreme Court (SC) rejecting petitions challenging the EVM’s, without even hearing them. The ECI’s website still shows only provincial figures and not exact figures of votes polled for each candidate, though results were declared in June last year. Fresh reports have now emerged that the paper trail has been destroyed already within four months of elections when the ECI rule book says that it cannot be destroyed for at least a year after polls.
There was a sense of disquiet after the declaration of results, with no celebration whatsoever in the country. There was just a grudging acceptance of results simply because there was no strong opposition to challenge them. The only efforts that have been made to challenge the election have been to file a few petitions in the SC, which are in different stages of hearing. The Modi government also managed to create a smokescreen of strong nationalist sentiments, triggered by their attack on Pakistan, through the Balakot airstrikes, following the killing of almost 50 Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans in Phulwana. The fact there is no evidence whatsoever of the casualties of the airstrikes which is supposed to have killed 100’s of Pakistani terrorists and no investigation report on how the Phulwama attack happened, Modi government was able to use that cover and get away with an unbelievable win, in the event of mixed sentiments.
In Delhi, there is a clear, overwhelming verdict in favor of Arvind Kejriwal, going by the exit polls unanimously granting his party a victory. BJP’s attempts to polarize by creating a scare that a vote for anybody other than BJP, would be a vote for Pakistan, trying to demonize the protestors at Shaheen Bagh, protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has not created the kind of smokescreen, that Balakot did for BJP to pull off a 48 seat victory. There is every indication that they will be restricted to single digits if any at all.
Not only would messing with the results, risk bringing Kejriwal to the streets, who is far more dangerous as an activist than a responsible chief minister, it would also cause an uproar not just in Delhi, but the country as well. There is already severe unrest in the country over CAA/NRC, and several other issues like a hike in fees, vacancies not being filled up in government jobs, farmer suicides, etc. Without a smokescreen, pulling off a victory like that would be suicidal and would impact their chances in the upcoming elections in Bihar, UP, West Bengal. A tough choice therefore for Amit Shah, to risk losing face in Delhi, which is strategically important but not a full state, or focus on the other bigger states. The choice is tough because of all the chief minister’s, Kejriwal is the only one who poses a huge threat to BJP’s existence as an extreme right-wing, fascist party.
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If BJP does concede defeat in Delhi as it did in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh before that, would it mean discussions on EVM tampering can be curtailed? Not at all.
EVM’s were introduced to make polls a speedier process and yet last year’s Lok Sabha elections from March 10 to the date of declaration of results on May 23, was one of the longest, creating an opportunity for the possible tampering of EVM’s. After the elections, the process of counting was hastened, with less than 2% of the counting verified with the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), when a demand was made for at least 50% of it being verified. The demand was turned down on the grounds that the results would be delayed by six days. In addition to all this, there was no prior announced policy by ECI as to what would happen if there was any mismatch found in the random cross-checks of the EVM and VVPAT pairing. ECI’s insistence on conducting these random checks, after results were announced, ended up it being a sham.
The fact is there are people handling these machines from the point of their design, manufacture, storage, delivery, maintenance of various kinds from time to time, all the way till their ultimate disposal after their useful life, and all these are authorized access points for many persons, numbering in the tens of thousands and possibly lakhs of people, throughout the country. Many of these insiders can during times of such authorized access, access those machines in ways that may not be officially authorized, and can be co-opted by outside criminals with or without their full knowledge. And yet ECI has consistently refused to hand a unit to those who have expressed a need to check it infallibility.
There is no clarity on how the names of candidates, serial numbers and election symbols are entered in the EVMs. The machines are not stored at the EC headquarters but go to the state electoral office before the election is in the constituency. There is no clarity on whether there are CCTV cameras to monitor them.
Doubts have been raised on EVM’s by several activists, over the last five years, which has been ignored by the ECI. Some of them are:
1) ECI never revealed details of manufacturers of the micro-controllers (computer chip) embedded in the BEL and ECIL manufactured the latest generation of EVMs and VVPATs (M3), that were used in the 2019 elections
2) In its Status Report on EVM’s, Edition 3, 2018, ECI states that the micro-controller used in the EVMs is one-time programmable (OTP). In an RTI reply, BEL claimed to have imported micro-controllers from NXP- a multi-billion dollar corporation based in the USA. The description of the micro-controller on NXP’s website clearly indicates that it has three kinds of memory – SRAM, FLASH, and EEPROM (or E2PROM). Experts state that any computer chip which includes FLASH memory cannot be called OTP. ECI never clarified this.
3) RTI replies state that the quality and functionality testing of the software used in the EVMs and VVPATs was tested by a third party, namely the Standardization Testing and Quality Certification (STQC) team, an agency under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and therefore not entirely an “independent agency”, defeating the very purpose of its testing.
4) The micro-controller used in the EVMs (M1 and probably M2 generation) were one time programmable (OTP). The firmware or source code written into them was a secret and could not be read by anybody including the manufacturers after it was burnt into the micro-controller. This was the reason why it was considered infallible and could not be tampered. However, the latest generation of M3 EVMs is burnt into the micro-controllers by BEL and ECIL themselves. ECI never informed why and when was this change made.
5) The name, serial number, and symbol of each candidate requires to be printed on the VVPAT slip and most likely this data cannot be fed into the micro-controller at the manufacturers’ premises. It can be done only after the final list of candidates is ready. To do this, a Flash memory type micro-controller instead of the older OTP type is required, and therefore it not secretive at all.
ECI documents state that 17.4 lakh VVPATs were kept ready to be used in the general election 2019 and the assembly elections of four states that were held simultaneously. It also stated that the candidates’ details and symbols would be loaded on to EVMs and VVPATs by BEL and ECIL engineers using special software on their laptop. The details had to be loaded on to EVMs and VVPATs after the last day of withdrawal of candidature on March 29, and about 8-10 days before the election date. ECIL and BEL had approximately 42 days to set 17.4 lakh VVPATS in this timeframe. That is an average of 41,428 VVPAT settings per day! ECI never revealed how many qualified engineers did both these PSUs have for the extensive job, or if the job outsourced? No information is available of the background verification of these engineers if it was done, their political affiliation, or if a quality check was done to ensure that the software uploaded in these laptops was not infected with any kind of malware or trojan?
6) There are media reports which state that EVM’s in seven states, was to replace the aluminum case of “M3-EVMs” manufactured in 2013-14” with steel case just before 2019 general elections. EC never explained what difference an aluminum or steel case made, in the ‘technical functioning’ of an EVM and in which states it was replaced.
7) As per the ECI guidelines, a VVPAT slip must be visible for seven full seconds before it drops itself into the attached box. And yet, video footage had surfaced of the slips being visible for only three seconds.
8)The initial counting results were dismissed as ‘provisional data’, which went through several revisions subsequently, which is again questionable. What is the accuracy of EVM counting then? When the votes polled in EVMs, were counted, published and declared the winners based on the “provincial figures”, how does it remain provisional data? What if the final count showed up a different winner?
9) In an RTI query, seeking the dissent notes by the election commissioner, Ashok Lavasa, ECI refused to part with the data indicating that doing so would endanger lives, raising questions on whose life was at risk here. And how can a reply like that help in reposing any kind of trust in ECI?
11) A prototype where the voters could vote on EVMs, collect the VVPAT slips and then deposit it in boxes themselves, was displayed by deputy election commissioner Alok Shukla, a few years ago. This prototype which would have brought in more transparency, the VVPAT’s fulfilling the need of the ballots, which continuing the voting process on EVM’s. The prototype was never used.
By no means, can the fight for a return to ballots be suspended, even if AAP retains Delhi with a clean sweep? That would just mean that the BJP took a step back to win the bigger battles ahead.