We live in a time when crusaders for truth and transparency are labelled as common criminals. Hari Prasad Vemuru is emphatically not an “EVM thief”, as he is being labelled by the Election Commission, the government and the media. He is a technology expert who understands how electronic voting machines work and how they can be tweaked by unscrupulous elements for nefarious ends.
Today when the trustworthiness of EVM machines is under the scanner not just in India but in many advanced countries too, a ten-year-old FIR has been raked up to accuse him of stealing an EVM machine so as to prevent him from engaging with the Election Commission.
Even back in 2010 it was well known that It was not just a false charge to silence a whistle-blower but there never was any follow-up proceedings against him leave alone a charge-sheet. In fact he was granted bail eight days after his arrest in August that year with the Court observing that the case of “theft” does not stand legal scrutiny as there was no "dishonest intention" behind the move.
Now, at the height of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with one phase of voting already completed, doubts about the vulnerability of EVMs have flared up again.
As Technology Advisor to the Andhra Pradesh state government, Hari Prasad Vemuru has the requisite tech-savvy and credentials to participate in any scientific inquiry into whether the electronic devices are as immune from manipulation as is claimed by the authorities, or whether they are susceptible to tampering as dozens of registered political parties are apprehending.
At stake is the legitimacy of the election process in the world’s largest democracy, the future of India. The right thing to do is to examine the serious complaints brought to the notice of the Election Commission by the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh and distinguished leaders of other national and regional political parties, in a rational and transparent manner.
Instead, the central issue is being sought to be diverted by singling out Hari Prasad Vemura as a thief, an interloper and persona non grata. It isn’t just the ruling party, which has the most to lose if the allegations about EVM tampering are proved correct. It isn’t just the pliant media which is dutifully parroting the official line.
It is the constitutional body in charge of ensuring that elections are conducted in free and fair manner that is seeking to keep out the one man who possesses the required knowledge and experience to assist in the technical discussions and close scrutiny. That is how deep the rot has set in.
Here is how Hari Prasad himself has reacted: “I feel really insulted when they say I am an accused in the 2010 EVM case. The whole world knows why I showed the EVM hack on video and TV at that time. I was hailed by the international tech community and the Electronic Frontier Foundation chose to honour me with the prestigious Pioneer award of 2010. It looks like it is time once again to fight for Democracy”.
It is worth noting that Vemuru had received solid support from VETA, an organisation actively campaigning for Verifiability, Transparency and Accountability in Elections. The less said about the political integrity of its president at that time, G.V. L. Narasimha Rao, the better. But what VETA said about the charges against Vemuru is pertinent in the current context:
“We are getting messages of solidarity from the scientific community worldwide for this witch-hunt. The charges of theft against Hari Prasad have earned the Election Commission of India notoriety worldwide. Rather than thank Hari Prasad and his co-researchers for exposing the weaknesses and fault-lines, the ECI has launched a vituperative and vicious propaganda.
Many of the world’s leading electronic voting security researchers have said that India’s EVMs do not provide security, verifiability or transparency adequate for confidence in election results.” Some of those global experts, incidentally, are still actively engaged in exposing vulnerabilities in EVMs in their own and other countries.
Hari Prasad too seems determined to raise questions, despite being blackballed by the election body. In a social media post this week, he asks: “Tell me is it 3 seconds or 7 seconds? The M3 machines showed both 7 seconds and 3 seconds. Are they functioning as programmed? I have the full video”.
What he was referring to was the visual that appears on the VVPATs after the voter has pressed the button of choice on the EVM. The image is meant to remain for seven seconds. But Vemuru observed (and captured on video) that the visual vanished after just 3 seconds – less than half the duration.
This would, theoretically, enable a second vote to be cast later. It is highly technical and hence may be difficult for laymen to comprehend. But it is a valid question that the authorities must clarify, not stonewall.
Another intriguing question relates to why the Election Commission ordered a change of covers for EVM machines in November 2018. In an official letter to the Electronics Corporation of India and Bharat Electronics, the Commission wanted the manufacturers of EVMs used in the 2014 elections to be altered by replacing the aluminium covers inside the machines with steel covers.
Asks Hari Prasad Vemuru: “Can you tell us why the Technical Expert Committee recommended change of covers? Can you reveal the reason? Is there a link between this exercise and the 3 second code manipulation in the new M3-EVMs? If 7 seconds is official then are the 3 seconds EVMs faulty?”
Such probing and prodding seems to have struck a raw nerve somewhere deep inside the opaque organisation entrusted with ensuring free and fair elections.
Little wonder that they want Hari Prasad Vemuru as far away from Nirvachan Sadan as possible.