It’s the EVM and the Election Commission, stupid

In a case coming up later this month in Bombay High Court, an RTI activist hopes the Election Commission will come up with some answers on the EVM

It’s the EVM and the Election Commission, stupid

Sujata Anandan

On the ground, across social media, in the urban drawing rooms which were once all over Narendra Modi and in the farms and fields in the rural hinterland, the mood seems to have swung in large measure against the BJP.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) internal assessment is said to be giving them only between 140-160 seats this time round in the Lok Sabha. Yet, despite the obvious layer of growing nervousness on the surface, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah seem gung-ho about sweeping the 2019 elections to the Lok Sabha in May, 2019.

So, what makes them so confident?

After a series of conversations with people, both on and off the record, the answer one receives is a simple one in three words – Electronic Voting Machines, or EVMs.

And the rogue elephant in the room is not just the BJP dispensation at Centre but the Election Commission of India which has not only consistently refused to accept that EVMs could be hacked, but has adopted other means to obfuscate the issue.

According to Manoranjan Roy, a Right To Information activist who has filed a petition in the Bombay High Court – coming up for hearing on October 31, though the Election Commission has not even filed a vakalatnama as yet - the obfuscation and scam is to be found mostly in the work order and the transfer of EVMs.

By and large, a single Lok Sabha constituency needs only 2000 EVMs. So, every election, eleven lakh EVM machines should suffice for 545 constituencies. Leaving room for malfunctions, etc, you could perhaps add another one lakh machines.

However, the EC’s purchase order for machines for the 2019 election is for over 17 lakh machines. Why do they need the extra five lakh machines, wonders Roy. He hopes the court will insist on a convincing answer from the intransigent EC.

Challans & transportation

Then again, he says, “The bigger scam is in the transfer of these EVM machines. Each challan should be for 500 machines but often only 250 will be provided, no fresh challan will be issued for the balance number. There will then be no record of which machines were provided where.”

According to Roy, during transportation they also mix up the machines and do not keep a strict vigil on the model numbers and individual identification numbers of the machine. This works against tallying data on a later date in case of doubts and queries. “It is a big scam and one dialogue/article is not enough to record the scam. This will require a book, “says Roy.

Which is precisely what was written by BJP’s GVL Narasimha Rao and presented to the then President of India when the UPA, which introduced the EVM machines to India in a big way, won the 2009 elections against all expectations. BJP suspected that the machines were manipulated. At that time, it was unlikely because the smart phone technology which is now used majorly everywhere in the world had not yet come into being then.

The case for paper ballots

Even so, with the first-generation basic iphone, two young students at the Massachussets Institute of Technology had succeeded in hacking some EVM machines. So, in the hands of professional hackers today, the possibilities are endless,” says Charu Satam, a senior media strategist in Mumbai, who has studied the issue of EVMs closely. All of the Election Commission’s arguments in favour of EVM machines are misplaced, based on wrong premises, he says.

The EVMs were introduced to India in an era when we were low on technology but booth capturing was rampant. The basic premise for introducing EVMs was transparency but now the EVM malfunctions are defeating that transparency. In recent elections and by-elections across India, many officials said the fourth generation EVMs malfunctioned because of excessive heat and they had to keep the machines under table fans, covered with sheets or -don’t miss this - sarees, all curtains drawn in the room (what happened to air-conditioners?) all the time to prevent the heat from getting into the machines and voting going haywire!

If that was not a definitive argument for getting rid of these machines, Satam does not know what is. Moreover, all these machines have VVPATs. So, the EC argument that electronic voting is environment friendly is “simply rubbish” he says.

“If paper can be used for VVPATs, it can be used for to ink ballots at a little or no extra cost to the environment and the exchequer,” he says.

“Moreover, has the EC considered how much it costs to dispose of electronic waste? The cost of paper ballots to the environment will be far less than that generated by EVMs,” he says, adding VVPATs are less secure than ballot papers in the sense every vote by an individual can be traced back to him or her by a vengeful candidate while the ballot paper is more anonymous.

Gujarat & Uttar Pradesh

Noted human rights activist Shabnam Hashmi was among the earliest to sound the alarm bells on EVMs during the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2012. While most political analysts and even ordinary voters in Gujarat had believed Modi was on his way out at that election, he made a surprising comeback at the last minute.

“It could not have happened without the manipulation of EVMs,” says Hashmi. When she and her fellow activists got to closely examine the results, they discovered that whole chunks of Congress-voting areas had voted for the BJP, even though they professed that they had pressed the button for the panja - or the hand symbol of the Congress.

The fact that buttons pressed for other symbols frequently flashed for the lotus, the BJP symbol, came to light almost a year later at elections to the Madhya Pradesh Assembly in November 2013. Since then, there have been frequent malfunctions and the best example is that of Assembly elections to Uttar Pradesh in March 2017. Once again there were few expectations of a BJP victory, leave alone a sweep, or if there were, not on the scale the party won that election against all odds.

Since then, there have been loud whispers - any party needed to manipulate only ten percent of the machines in just five percent of the booths to ensure any partucular candidate’s victory.

A few months later when ballot papers were used at local self government elections in UP, the BJP lost hugely in most seats where ballot papers were used. It won again where EVMs were used but there was no probe into the fact that in three towns far removed from each other by miles the BJP candidate won by the exact number of votes to the last digit. This could have been possible only through an algorithm and not physical voting.

Audit 25% of VVPATs

Says Hashmi, ‘Their hacking has got sophisticated over the years. Look at the Gujarat 2017 elections. It is impossible to believe that more than five lakh people would get up so early in the morning to go and press the NOTA button. Yet, there were a disproportionate number of voters for NOTA. So the manipulation is done at the programming stage these days – every vote for the BJP means three of other parties will be transferred to NOTA. The party need not worry about manipulating the booths at all.

Programming. That is the key to manipulation, says another activist who wished to remain anonymous. He points to the fact that the chips for the EVMs are manufactured by a company set up in the United States by two NRIs who are very close to both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Those chips are then transported to an Indian company whose promoter was appointed to the Board of the Bangalore-based Bharat Electronics Limited, which is a major supplier of EVMs to the country. Programming of the chips then is quite an easy task when the possibility of hacking en route is also enhanced by the fact that many of these EVMs are transported through post or by hand couriers.

“So, it is advisable for all candidates to keep a close watch on VVPATs,” says Nawab Malik, spokesperson of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which has been most active in taking up the issue with various authorities.

But Malik rues the fact that the EC refuses to even follow the orders of the Supreme Court in this regard which has ruled that the paper trail must be counted if any candidate has a single doubt.

“What is the point of counting just two per cent or ten per cent of the VVPATs when a losing candidate demands it? Count 100 per cent and clear his doubts,” he says.

But the ECI is adamant on its own stand. Giving much confidence to the Modi-Shah duo that they will win the 2019 elections despite scams, corruption, non-performance, a tanking economy, weakening Rupee and soaring petrol prices - and despite the disappointment of a majority of the people with their government.

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