Recurring EVM controversy

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: SY QuraishiUpdated: Jan 26, 2019, 01:18 PM IST

(Representative photo). Photograph:(Others)

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The ECI has confidently challenged all conspiracy theorists to try their hands on its EVMs to show that these can be hacked. Till date no political party has accepted the challenge. 

The hue and cry around EVMs has by now become a regular feature. The latest controversy involves a sensational claim of a live demonstration of hacking by an Indian cybersecurity expert based in the US in London that never happened. A promised earthquake turned out to be a damp squib.

The supposed “expert” introduced himself as one Syed Shuja, an ex-employee of ECIL, Hyderabad, who claimed to be a member of the team which designed the EVMs. His sensational claim was that he discovered a way which made hacking possible. He went on to say that the 2014 general elections was entirely rigged.

Even the recent state assembly elections would have been rigged but for the counteraction by Shuja and his team. He claimed that a senior BJP leader and a Karnataka journalist who knew about the rigging were killed, besides his own teammates whose murders were covered up as incidents in a communal riot. He said he survived and escaped to the US where he sought political asylum.

These sound like bizarre claims but can be independently verified. One hopes that the agencies concerned would be doing their job. The fact is that “live demonstration” of EVM hacking never happened. But the controversy was revived yet again. 

This is by no means a standalone incident. There is a long history of claims and counter-claims. Every political party at some time or the other has raised doubts without any evidence whatsoever. The usual call is to return to ballot papers. 

To force the hands of the Election Commission to return to ballot papers, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), in 2010, put up more than 64 candidates in 12 by-elections on the Telangana issue as the EVMs cannot take more than 64 candidates. After scrutiny, six constituencies were left with over 64 candidates, where perforce elections had to be conducted with paper ballots. An equal number used EVMs. In a way, this was a great opportunity to test the relative merits and demerits of the two systems of voting. 

While EVM results were out in four hours, ballot papers took 40 hours, with a lot of invalid votes coming in. The results from both the systems were exactly the same.

Interestingly, on that occasion, the BJP was opposing the EVM and the Congress defending it! Since the 2014 elections, all parties have been accusing the BJP of misusing EVMs to win elections without producing any evidence. Hence the song remains the same, only the singers change every couple of years.

The ECI, on the other hand, has confidently challenged all conspiracy theorists to try their hands on its EVMs to show that these can be hacked. Till date no political party has accepted the challenge. 

The previous occasion when the demand for ballot papers had reached such a high pitch was in 2010, in the wake of BJP’s hype about hackability of the machines. The ECI had called an all-party meeting where consensus was reached that voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) was the ultimate solution. We accepted the demand and asked the two EVM manufacturing companies to design VVPAT machines.

The independent committee of five IIT professors was asked to oversee the entire technology and process. After a series of trials, the VVPAT was initially tried in Nagaland in 2012 and later in several other states. Since 2017, every state election has been held with these printer-attached machines. Voter chits generated by these machines have been crosschecked in 1,500 booths. All of them tallied. That should have ended the controversy. 

Recurrent controversy creates doubts in public minds about the electoral system that has stood the test of time. Lack of public trust in the system is dangerous for democracy. It must be addressed effectively and quickly. Many parties are demanding that a reasonable percentage of VVPAT machines should be counted for public confidence. Let EC examine this demand and arrive at a scientific sample size in consultation with statistical experts so that the controversy is put to rest once for all. 

Instead of appearing rigid, the Commission may convene an all-party meeting, yet again, as the basic concern is serious and the stakes are very high. My experience in dealing with political parties is that if we have an open dialogue with them to explain our stand, they always see reason and a consensus does evolve. Giving it another shot, urgently, would be worth its while.  

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)