The Republic of Botswana in southern Africa and famous for Kalahari desert shall reportedly host a day-long hackathon on Electronic Voting Machines ( EVMs ) on Wednesday. Reports indicate the decision by the Election Commission of Botswana to hold the hackathon comes in the wake of allegations of EVM tampering flying thick and fast in far-away India.
Botswana imports EVM machines from the same manufacturers that supplies EVMs to the Election Commission of India – Bharat Electronics Ltd. The Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal would not have dreamt in its wildest dreams his demand for a hackathon shall echo in an African country, with a population of barely 21 lakhs on last count in 2014, and a voter count far less than in New Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, which comprises several assembly segments one of which – Gole Market - is represented by Kejriwal himself.
But Botswana is certainly setting a precedent of sorts by inviting expert hackers and technical experts to come and try their hands at hacking the EVMs. Imagine a country, which has imported EVMs, undertaking such an exercise not because there is a political opposition to EVMs in Botswana but because there are suggestions of machine tampering and a strong protest against the use of these machines from the country of its origin.
Here in India the ECI did invite all political parties for a round of deliberations on the issue. Other than AAP, BSP ( in fact, it was Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party that flagged the issue soon after the results of the elections to the five states were announced in March) Congress Party and the Samajwadi Party too joined the chorus. While the Election Commission never invited the parties for a ‘hackathon’ but the word went around that ECI meant business and shall nip the controversy in the bud. But it turned out ECI only wanted to assure political parties yet again and assuage their fears that the EVM was an unlikely villain.
This led Kejriwal to tweet – It’s sad that ECI backed out of hackathon. For Kejriwal the loss in the recent vidhan sabha elections followed by a drubbing in Delhi’s municipal elections were more than he could chew. He was not willing to look for an explanation for his party’s loss in Punjab, Goa and Delhi in party’s weak strategy and in being just not up to it for so many reasons other than the ‘dubious’ functioning of the EVMs which he said were programmed by design to make the BJP win. Kejriwal did not stop at that. He hurriedly convened a special session of Delhi Assembly to prove his point. A senior member of Kejriwal’s party, Saurabh Bharadwaj, brought in an EVM prototype inside the house and physically demonstrated how the machine can be easily tampered with. Now that was a prototype and not the actual machine but the special assembly session beaming the proceedings live did give out the signal the allegations need to be given more than just an ear by ECI – the poll monitor.
It is not the first time in India that voices against possible EVM tampering have been raised. Ever since the ECI introduced the EVM, first as a pilot project, in 16 assembly segments across three states - Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi - way back in November 1998 there have been murmurs of discontent and a general opposition against the EVMs by political parties of different hue and colour.
The first wave of protest was more in tune with apprehensions regarding the acceptance of the new technology. The EVMs drastically cut down on time in the process of actual casting of vote and spared the trouble of physical counting of ballot papers ( counting in some geographically large Lok Sabha constituencies would go on for three days in the good old days of voting through ballot papers ). And then there was a time when the administration, the political parties and the voters heaved a sigh of relief as the country shunned the ballot paper for good and switched to EVMs.
But there never was any dearth of tense moments in EVM’s almost two decades history in India when political parties, especially the losers, shall not raise the bogey of EVM tampering. It is interesting to see how the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party is lampooning the mere suggestion of EVM tampering by opposition parties now when it was in the forefront of opposition against the use of EVMs soon after the General Elections of 2009, when it faced a drubbing at the hands of Congress-headed coalition despite its more than ordinary pitch for a change of guard at the Centre.
In fact the NDA rubbed it in on the issue for as long as the newspapers were willing to give it space on their front pages above the fold and TV news channels found a handle to chase their TRPs. The BJP think tank and its supporters laboured to write a series of articles in support of their claims bolstering their arguments with the fact that several European countries including Germany, Holland and Italy have banned use of EVMs precisely because of the kind of tampering these machines were vulnerable to. Those articles took the shape of a book and can be still be yours for a price on popular e-websites. You can’t miss out on the author, the redoubtable Subramanian Swamy.
The ECI on its part did undertake exercise to satisfy the stakeholders. A massive exercise was conducted even after the 2009 elections. The allegations did not die out in 2014. Those making the allegations had swapped positions now. The trend continues in 2017, particularly now, when there is no stopping the BJP bandwagon which romped home with big victories in UP, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur after Assam and following it up with big wins in election to Delhi Municipal Corporation dashing AAP's hopes of taking over the MCD and repeating their performance in 2015 Assembly elections.
On the face of it, it appears the allegations have more to do with the political parties’ unhealthy ways of negotiating a defeat than intrinsic and fundamental flaws with either the design or its technical capabilities. But ECI’s argument sustained by reason and backed by technology can only go thus far and no further when there is a suggestion of trust-deficit.
As much as a democracy is all about number crunching the path to that electoral nirvana does pass through the ‘agneepath’ of trust and credibility, with a job cut-out for every stakeholder - Politicos vis-à-vis their voters and Institutions like the ECI vis-à-vis the gamut of responsibilities they are under the constitutional obligation to fulfil in order to serve the voters and through them live up to the underlying spirit of democracy which is not just for and by the people but of the people.
In fact, the Supreme Court reminded the Centre last month of its 2013 order to use paper trails in EVMs. The SC asked why was it that its order was not being implemented so far. This was on a plea filed by BSP and argued by former Union Minister and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram who told the court ‘what one man can invent, the other man can hack.’ The Voter Verified Paper Audit Trails or VVPAT is a machine fixed to the EVM. Through VVPAT the voter can verify through a paper trail whether the symbol he pressed on the EVM is the symbol the EVM registers. Verification of the vote cast is the right of the voter and shall help fill the trust-deficit.
Though the Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi has assured that henceforth all elections including the 2019 Lok Sabha elections shall be conducted with VVPAT but the assurance comes quite late in the day. A storm that brewed against the EVM has already turned into a twister cyclone. The ECI will have to make more than adequate efforts to arrest its intensity lest it swept away its own credibility and trust built assiduously over the last 65 years when it first conducted the elections in independent India. If Botswana can do it, so can India.