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EVM hacking: Is the controversy settled for good?

Five suggestions to strengthen the credibility of the electoral process

SY Quraishi  |  New Delhi 

Bilari bypolls
Photo: PTI

The on-off-on controversy has hopefully come to a close – at least for the time being. There are three recent developments which clinched the issue. First, the Uttarakhand High Court order that public criticism in the media by political parties and others must immediately stop till the court decides the seven election petitions it is already hearing. Second, EC's meeting with political parties where it explained the security features of the EVMs and the presentation of the Technical Experts Committee (TEC) before the participants. Thirdly, the so-called hackathon which saw the political parties develop cold feet. Only two parties CPI- M and NCP who joined the challenge also converted it into a friendly 'academic' discussion. It is not understood as to why political parties who were loudly and vehemently critical of the EVMs like BSP, SP and the did not show up at the Challenge on 3 June 2017.

AAP’s abstention is still understandable. They were not satisfied with the terms of the challenge laid down by the EC and decided to hold their own demonstration which too was called off at the last minute probably because of the Uttarakhand High Court order. 

The outcome of the entire controversy is that the election commission has announced its decision to conduct all future with VVPAT and the government has finally sanctioned Rs.3173 crores for the procurement of the machines. The ball has now moved to the court of manufacturing companies BEL and ECIL to produce the requisite number of 16.15 lakh machines within less than two years. EC has assured the nation that all machines would be available by September 2018, much before the general election of 2019. In that period six states will be going to polls, namely Gujarat, Nagaland, Karnataka, Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh and Tripura in 2018. These would be held with the already available 60,000 machines, supplemented by those coming out of the assembly line during the coming months.

What led to the unprecedented bitter attacks on the EVMs? First, some incidents in Maharashtra municipal (which ECI had nothing to do with) where it was reported that in some machines more votes came out than were actually cast. Secondly, in some cases even the votes cast by the candidates and their families were not reflected in the results, all the votes going to the BJP. Thirdly, extraordinary performance of BJP in UP where even from the opposition dominated pockets, BJP got overwhelming numbers.

AAP's persistent and loud hue and cry created a lot of doubt and disaffection among many voters. While the doubts of political parties can be handled, public loss of faith is dangerous. 

Was this controversy avoidable? Maybe not, but prompt and authoritative denial or clarification by ECI would have helped. Their shyness to take the bull by the horn quickly and their perfunctory rebuttals did not help. What salvaged the situation for EC was the all-party meeting it called on 12 May 2017 in which 42 parties participated.  This gave the parties an opportunity to vent their apprehensions and fears. It boiled down to almost all parties demanding that VVPAT should be introduced in all future Similar consensus on VVPAT as the only solution had emerged in Rajya Sabha debate on the budget.  

EC, after the clinching Supreme Court judgment (Subramanian Swamy vs ECI, 2013), was in any case well on its way to introduce VVPAT in all It was unfortunate that government delayed sanction of funds – just Rs.3000 crores for the procurement of the machines. SC in its judgment had ordered the government to release funds to EC to introduce VVPAT in phases, as the manufacturing process was time-consuming. It had appreciated the Election Commission for its efforts to move in that direction.

I have defended the consistently all these years as I have observed the system very closely not just in the ECI or in the actual but also seen the manufacturing process in the two factories. Broadly, there are four levels of safeguards: technology, custodial security, oversight by independent TEC, and judicial review. 

At the end of the so called hackathon on 3 June, Election Commission reassured the citizens of the country that it would never allow their faith in the integrity of the election process to be shaken. It also urged upon all citizens and stakeholders to remain aware, vigilant and alert so that the commission can further strengthen the conduct of free and fair in the country. The promise to 'further strengthen' the electoral process is reassuring. I have the following suggestions:

1. EC should not take anything for granted and remain sceptical and watchful of every link in the chain starting from the management and engineers of the two manufacturing companies against intimidation or temptation.

2. Since custodial security of the EVMs from factory to polling booths to strong room is critical, the First Level Check (FLC), where machines have to be physically opened should be kept under close watch as it is impossible for BEL and ECIL engineers alone to test nearly 20 lakh machines and they may be outsourcing it or hiring temporary staff for the job. Each of the staff must be security vetted.

3. During counting, every candidate could be allowed a limited number of appeals or 'challenges' (like cricket) where the voter slips must be counted. 

4. Civic education of the public and political parties must be strengthened. They should know that once the result has been announced, EC is left with no power at all and all specific complaints can only be dealt with through election petitions. (For instance, specific complaints like in in Mumbai or Assembly in UP, Punjab or Uttarakhand are matters to be decided by the respective High Courts.)

5. All election petitions must be decided within six months as envisaged from the beginning by the Representation of the People Act 1951. 

Credibility of is our most important national heritage. All stakeholders must work together to ensure that the 'gold standard' as Hillary Clinton described our must not be diluted.
The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder - The Making of the Great Indian Election. He tweets as @DrSYQuraishi

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.