Voters’ lists and EVMs: Not enough for ECI to say ‘sorry’

The Election Commission cannot claim to be the only institution that is free from incompetence, negligence or mischief. It needs to take a second look at procedures and safeguards

Voters’ lists and EVMs: Not enough for ECI to say ‘sorry’

Uttam Sengupta

While the Election Commission of India does a stupendous job of conducting elections, and a thankless job at that, it suffers from the fatal flaw of being too stubborn to even admit to the possibility of anything going wrong.

The last one week witnessed not just glaring instances highlighted on social media platforms that raise doubts about the integrity of the Election but also the unprecedented admission by the ECI that as many as three million voters in Telangana were dropped from the voters’ lists due to a flawed software. While the Chief Election Commissioner is said to have apologised, deleting 8% of the voters from a state ought to be taken a little more seriously than with a cursory apology.

Who supplied the software to the ECI? Who were the people responsible for using it? Why did local officials fail to point out the flaw?

Here is a list of a few glaring instances that preceded the CEC’s admission on Telangana :

  • T. Krishna Prasad, IPS in the rank of a DGP and chairman of Road Safety Authority, Hyderabad found his name missing from the voters’ list although he had verified it online.
  • Badminton player Jwala Gutta found her name missing in Hyderabad although she has been living at the same address for the past 12 years.
  • Telangana electoral officers admitted to have received a large number of such complaints and publicly said they were ‘sorry’ !
  • An EVM machine was found on the side of a Highway in Rajasthan after polling. Electoral officers claimed that it could have ‘fallen off’ the vehicle.
  • It was reported on social media that three people claiming to be Reliance Jio employees and carrying laptops were allowed to enter the Strong Room storing EVMs.
  • An EVM machine was recovered from a private residence in Pali, disconcertingly close to the house of the sitting MLA.
  • Postal ballot papers were recovered from the canteen at the Home Guards’ office in Jehangirabad locality of Bhopal.
  • In Madhya Pradesh a group of polling officials were found with EVMs in a hotel owned by a ruling party MLA.

One suspects many more such instances would have gone unreported. But the ECI does not appear concerned enough to explain what went wrong and if these cases were due to carelessness, negligence or wilful mischief.

It is just not enough for the Election Commission to say that these are isolated instances, that they are too few to affect the results and that there is nothing really to worry. Even if they are isolated instances, the Election Commission is duty-bound to explain the lapses, fix the responsibility and inform people of the action the Commission has taken against people responsible. Is it really too much to expect?

Surely the ECI does not expect us to believe that it has such magical properties that it is the only credible institution in the country that performs without a glitch?

The ECI depends on the Government for funds, for polling personnel, observers, security, transportation, storage—for virtually everything. But the Commission refuses to even acknowledge that its systems may not be robust enough, that the personnel it draws from the Government may either be incompetent, dishonest or careless. It refuses to admit that mistakes can and do happen. It zealously promotes the myth that the safeguards, procedures and systems it has laid down are followed scrupulously and there is no deviation whatsoever.

It is this ostrich-like behaviour that prompts ECI to brush aside the fear that the integrity of the elections can be compromised in certain places, at certain elections and by certain group or groups of people engaged by it.

It even refuses to publicly acknowledge why it persists in comparing the slips recorded by the Voter Verifiable Paper Trail (VVPAT) with the EVMs in just one booth in each constituency. Statistically it makes no sense. If the purpose of the VVPAT is to ensure transparency and enhance the credibility of the electoral process and procedures, auditing of the election in at least a quarter of the booths is necessary to allay apprehensions.

But the ECI would like people to believe that while other public bodies can occasionally make mistakes, no mistake ever takes place in the Election Commission. Human errors and negligence, highhandedness and corruption are reported not too infrequently from banks, Railways, other government offices and even the police and the armed forces. But the Election Commission is so different and so far apart from other bodies that no mistake can ever be made by the ECI.

Nobody doubts that the ECI may well have fool-proof systems and standard operating procedures laid down. But how can the ECI vouch for the fact that there is never a breach? And if breaches are reported or detected, ECI must identify those who are responsible and take appropriate action against them under the law.

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Published: 10 Dec 2018, 4:31 PM