POINT OF VIEW: DON BLAME VMs

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Navin B. Chawla Navin B. Chawla is a for­mer chief elec­tion com­mis­sioner of In­dia

For the past two decades, I have ob­served that when po­lit­i­cal par­ties or can­di­dates lose elec­tions, they tend to blame the elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chine (EVM). When they win by virtue of the same ma­chine, they cel­e­brate their vic­to­ries with gusto. To give the ex­am­ple of Ut­tar Pradesh, EVMs man­u­fac­tured since 2001 have been used in mul­ti­ple elec­tions. In 2007, the Bahu­jan Sa­maj Party won the as­sem­bly elec­tion; the Sa­ma­jwadi Party (SP) won in 2012 and the BJP this year. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elec­tion, the Congress and SP did well; in the 2014 gen­eral elec­tion, the BJP won re­sound­ingly. To sug­gest that EVMs man­u­fac­tured so many years ago could be tam­pered with to give a doc­tored re­sult is be­yond com­pre­hen­sion. Yet, af­ter the 2017 UP as­sem­bly elec­tions, the prin­ci­pal par­ties that lost once again put the blame on EVMs.

EVMs are man­u­fac­tured by two highly re­puted pub­lic sec­tor un­der­tak­ings, ex­clu­sively for the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion (EC). These are ‘stand­alone’ ma­chines, net­worked nei­ther by wire nor by wire­less to any other ma­chine or sys­tem. They can­not be in­flu­enced or ma­nip­u­lated by sig­nals from com­put­ers or cell­phones or any other source. The soft­ware in the ma­chine is burnt into a one­time pro­gram­mable or masked chip that can­not be al­tered. Not even the EC has the source code of the soft­ware.

Sev­eral high courts have en­dorsed the ma­chine’s re­li­a­bil­ity. The first le­gal chal­lenge arose in 1971 when the late J. Jay­alalithaa moved the Madras High Court. The court ob­served that the EC had taken ev­ery pre­cau­tion as a “pru­dent nor­mal per­son” might take in this mat­ter and that the “mar­gin of er­ror was neg­li­gi­ble”. The court held that the EVM was a very sim­ple and per­fectly sound tech­nol­ogy with­out de­fect, and that the ad­van­tages of us­ing EVMs out­weighed those of con­ven­tional bal­lot boxes. The pe­ti­tioner’s con­tention about the fail­ure of EVMs in Ja­pan and the United States was held to be in­ap­pli­ca­ble to In­dia. The sec­ond chal­ lenge was raised in the Kar­nataka High Court by C.K. Jaf­fer Sharief. The is­sue raised was pri­mar­ily that the EVMs used were vul­ner­a­ble to ‘mis­chief’. The court, in its Fe­bru­ary 5, 2004, or­der, held that the in­ven­tion of the EVM was a mat­ter of ‘na­tional pride’. An­other chal­lenge arose be­fore the Bom­bay High Court wherein it was al­leged rig­ging was pos­si­ble through ‘re­motely op­er­ated de­vices’ with­out ac­tual ac­cess to ei­ther the stron­groom or the ma­chine. In its Oc­to­ber 21, 2005 or­der, the court dis­missed the pe­ti­tion on grounds that the wit­nesses were not able to aver a sin­gle in­stance wherein EVMs could ac­tu­ally be tam­pered with.

Soon af­ter I com­pleted the 2009 gen­eral elec­tions, the BJP al­leged tam­per­ing. We as­sem­bled 100 ma­chines (10 each from 10 dif­fer­ent states) and in­vited those who had ob­jected to tam­per and show, within the EC. Video cam­eras were po­si­tioned to record any ev­i­dence. No one was able to tam­per with the ma­chine. There were re­quests for al­low­ing the ma­chines to be taken away for a cou­ple of weeks, but these were re­jected as the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights were only with the man­u­fac­tur­ers. What re­sulted, how­ever, was an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent need—to cre­ate a new model of EVM with an in­built pa­per trail. This was raised by Dr Subra­ma­nian Swamy and was agreed to. This has since be­come a re­al­ity and will be com­pre­hen­sively em­ployed for the 2019 gen­eral elec­tions.

The most re­cent chal­lenge has arisen from the Aam Aadmi Party, which sought to demon­strate in the Delhi as­sem­bly that EVMs could be tam­pered with. How­ever, this was not a ma­chine that be­longed to the EC but a ‘looka­like’. So, I could not give the demon­stra­tion any cre­dence. Mean­while, the EC has in­vited all ob­jec­tors to a ‘hackathon’ test, not dis­sim­i­lar to the one I con­ducted in 2009. I have no doubt the re­sult will be the same.

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