Voting data released by the Election Commission of India (ECI) continue to baffle poll junkies. Many of them find it difficult to swallow the claim that extreme communal polarisation led Other Backward Classes, Extreme Backward Castes and Dalits to make common cause with the BJP.
The data clearly show that in constituency after constituency, even in constituencies where minority population is lower than 15%, the opposition polled a much higher percentage of votes. Which, Sudiep Shrivastava believes, disproves that a majority of the Hindus did not vote for the SP-BSP-RLD alliance in Uttar Pradesh and the gathbandhan in Bihar.
Percentage of Muslim voters in Patna Sahib, he points out, is just eight per cent. But the Congress candidate secured 33% of the votes. Similarly, in Patliputra constituency, where minority population is even lower, the Rashtriya Janata Dal polled 43% of the votes. In Arrah, Muslim voters constitute just seven per cent of the voters but the CPI(ML) candidate supported by the opposition polled 39% of the votes polled.
The more dramatic point that sceptics like Srivastava make is that while in Muslim minority constituencies in Bihar, the gathbandhan had no difficulty in garnering 30 to 40 per cent votes or even more, the opposition lost each and every constituency with a high concentration of Muslims. How is that even possible, he wonders.
Katihar is a case in point. The constituency is said to have 44.47% Muslim population. But Tariq Anwar, who had won the seat even in 2014 despite the fractured opposition then, lost the seat this time even after polling 44.93% of the votes. In Araria, a seat which RJD had won even in 2014 and again in a by-election of 2018, BJP won after polling 52.87% votes.
BJP supporters concede the point but have an explanation ready. The BJP had more resources, BJP workers were better organised and ‘forward castes’ were even more aggressive, they have argued. The opposition, they suggest, made the fatal mistake of believing that in the absence of a Modi wave this time, they would sail through if they could ensure three to four lakh votes. But that proved insufficient because the BJP put in more effort, they have reasoned. Elementary, Dr Watson?
In Arrah Lok Sabha constituency, these BJP supporters acknowledged that nobody had ever polled four lakh votes in the last 70 years. This time Raju Yadav of CPI(ML) polled 4.19 lakh votes but lost to BJP’s RK Singh who polled 5.70 lakh votes.
The scepticism is not confined to Bihar. In some seats in eastern UP, he jokes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chemistry seemed to work. In others, they didn’t. Sceptics claim to be baffled because in constituencies like Ghazipur, Ghosi, Machhlishahr, Bansgaon, Chandauli and Mirzapur, the vote transfer between the SP and the BSP appeared to be seamless. But they seemed to have gone awry in constituencies like Balia, Basti, Sant Kabir Nagar, Maharajganj and Deoria.
In Ballia, at the peak of the Modi wave, the BJP had polled 38.18% of the votes. The combined vote share of SP and BSP, which fought the election separately, was 55.83% then. This time the BJP fielded former MP from Mirzapur from here. Though born in Ballia, he didn’t have much of a base in the constituency. But he romped home with 47.40% of the votes.
In several other constituencies in eastern UP, he points out, vote shares show that transfer of votes did happen between the SP and the BSP. But the BJP’s vote share went up dramatically between four and ten per cent over 2014, helping the party beat the combined opposition.
In several other constituencies, they note, the SP-BSP gathbandhan lost vote share dramatically over 2014. In Sant Kabir Nagar, it came down from 54% to 41%. In Basti, it dropped sharply from 58% to 42%. In other words, voters who did not vote for the BJP and Modi in 2014 voted overwhelmingly for them in 2019.
“If caste barrier got broken as claimed by the BJP, how did it still work in many seats in UP... and with Modi being the only reason to vote for BJP, how come in adjoining seats voting patterns of the same castes and community were different,” they wonder.
Jat leader and RLD chief Ajit Singh, he points out, lost the election from Muzaffarnagar despite Dalits and Muslims constituting 55% of the voters. The RLD managed to poll only 48% while BJP did one better with 50%.
Sceptics point to BJP’s hashtag which trended during the long drawn campaign: #AbKiBaar300Paar. They refer to a TV interview in November, 2018, in which Union Minister Piyush Goyal was heard predicting that BJP would bag between 297 and 303 seats. BJP president Amit Shah and several BJP leaders and supporters were also sanguine that BJP would improve its tally over 2014, months before the election was announced and weeks before the air strike inside Pakistan.
In January, media outlets reported a viral WhatsApp chat between the then Collector of Shahdol in Madhya Pradesh and a junior officer. When the junior officer informs the Collector that the BJP candidate was trailing, the Collector advises that if she wanted to get promoted as the SDM, she better ensure that the BJP wins. BJP did win the seat narrowly.
Both the officers denied having the chat. Their WhatsApp accounts were hacked, they alleged. The junior officer lodged an FIR with the police as well. But since then, there is no word on the investigation.
EVM sceptics have always been at a disadvantage. While their scepticism is backed by anecdotal evidence, they can easily be dismissed as stray instances. In a country of 900 million voters, how relevant are the voices of three, 10 or 100 people? Statistically insignificant, such scepticism can always be brushed aside as paranoia, fevered imagination or suspicious nature of a few incorrigible souls.
An even more potent argument is the allegation of selective suspicion. Losers are bad, graceless losers. Didn’t Narendra Modi and Amit Shah repeatedly make this point during the election campaign? That the Opposition, after losing the election, would blame their electoral debacle on the EVM? After every report in the media of EVMs being transported without security and at odd hours, they would smirk and say, ‘See, we told you.’
Videos on social media showing BJP polling agents ‘helping’ voters to press on the party’s symbol would similarly be dismissed. The ECI did take action in the case of one such booth in Faridabad but the polling agent was quoted by the media as saying with a sense of injured innocence that he was merely helping a few voters who seemed confused. A retired DGP in Assam claimed that the VVPAT slip that popped up when he pressed the key on the EVM, showed a different party than the symbol he had pressed. No, he didn’t lodge a formal complaint because he was told he would be arrested if the complaint turned out to be ‘false’!
Talk to Election Commission officials. They would exasperatedly tell you that the claim was ‘imagined’ by the DGP because it was impossible, not just improbable. Machines are tamper proof, they maintain. Representatives of political parties are allowed to see and inspect the machines before polling, the numbers of the machines recorded and communicated, a demonstration is given—and after all this if there is still distrust in the machine, well, hard luck, they suggest. The claim is stoutly opposed by many including some scientists though.
Finally comes the coup de grace. “So, wherever the opposition lost, the EVMs are at fault and wherever they won, the EVMs were fair and functioned without a glitch,” is the question that is hurled at the sceptics. The EVMs functioned well in Kerala and Tamil Nadu but not in UP and Bihar, huh?
All this explains why the losers in UP and Bihar have been fretting and fuming in private but dare not raise their doubts publicly.
There is simply no evidence so far to prove that EVMs can be tampered with, said former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi. Pollster and TV personality Prannoy Roy also says categorically in his book, The Verdict, that he has come across no proof that EVMs can be tampered.
But there are rumblings. The losers of this election are clearly not convinced that they were beaten fairly and squarely. A movement against EVMs is already snowballing in Mumbai, Lucknow and other places.
The Election Commission could have put an end to the controversy by inviting the losers to spend two days at counting centres, after the results were declared, match all VVPAT units with EVMs and satisfy themselves. Or they could have invited an independent group of observers, ethical hackers and members of the civil society to conduct an audit at each centre.
But the Sphinx-like Election Commission of India is reluctant to discuss even the possibility of ineptitude, incompetence or complicity. It mulled legal action against an Indian engineer granted asylum by the United States, Syed Shuja, who had made the sensational claim that EVMs had been hacked in 2014. It rubbished the ‘outlandish’ claim of N Chandrababu Naidu that Russian agents could hack the EVMs. And it refused to meet a hacker who, along with BJP’s spokesperson GVLN Narasimha Rao, had co-written a book in 2009 to suggest that Indian EVM’s were vulnerable.