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Did the EC forget that AAP is not the first to raise questions about faulty EVMs? BJP did it in 2009

Ashutosh | Updated on: 4 April 2017, 13:37 IST

As a young TV reporter, my first beat was to cover the Election Commission (EC). TN Seshan was the chief election commissioner (CEC) those days. He was appointed by VP Singh but was known for his proximity to Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress. But when Seshan took over the EC, he was a different man.

Before he came in, the EC was a toothless body and had no spine. It was like any other government department, ran at the whims and fancies of the ruling party (without any disrespect to pre-Seshan era CECs).

Elections in those days were mayhem. Rigging and looting of ballot papers and boxes was routine, killing was often the rule and EC was a mute spectator.

Seshan turned a toothless tiger into a dreadful creature. He tamed the political animal called politicians. He was abused and threatened but he did not waver. Seshan single-handedly put into order the electoral process and cleansed the system of its major ills.

Of course, this did not go down well with the political class and the then PM Narasimha Rao. The single-member EC was turned into a multi-member body – MS Gill and GVG Krishnamurthy were appointed election commissioners.

But Seshan had set such a high standard that they could not change the course of history.

Looking back

I had many interactions with Seshan and most of them were not very pleasant ones. He was a bully and always spoke his mind. He shouted at me many a times.

I remember, once I waited for him at the EC office doorstep for more than 10 hours and when he emerged he refused to answer any question. I shoved the mic in his car; he caught the mic and started pulling it towards himself. It was hilarious. I tried to retrieve the mic, because the car had started to move and somehow I got my mic back.

He was called a maniac but his contribution was immense. He restored the people's trust in the electoral process and enriched democracy. He also demonstrated that institutions could become beacons of hope if people at the helm had an unbending spine.

Once his term was over, politicians/governments tried to stifle the voice of the EC by appointing their cronies. Every political party that formed the government at the Centre should share the blame for this.

They all tried to tweak the system to help their masters but no one dared to make a political statement the way the present EC has reacted to AAP’s accusations of EVM tampering.

Paper tigers

I won't call the EC the spokesperson of the BJP as it is a high constitutional position but serious questions arise. Holding free and fair elections is the sole responsibility of the EC. Its job is to ensure that all the players have a level playing field. The EC is like an umpire. Its job is to conduct the big game – the elections.

Elections are the bedrock of a democracy. It is the manifestation of people's sovereign will. Free and fair elections are the guarantee of a healthy democracy. Even an iota of doubt about the process will weaken the trust of the people. Any doubt, however much unfounded it might be, should be cleared with utmost urgency with visible proof of accuracy.

AAP is not the first party and Arvind Kejriwal is not the first leader to raise doubts about the authenticity of the electronic voting machines (EVMs). Long before AAP and Kejriwal were born as a political entity, one of the tallest leaders post-independence, LK Advani, raised the issue and advised the EC to scrap EVMs and go for paper ballots.

While speaking to the Sunday Indian Express, Advani on 5 July, 2009 had said, “We should revert to ballot papers unless the Election Commission is able to ensure that Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are foolproof and every possibility of their malfunctioning is taken care of.”

Advani then stressed that no one was raising any questions like rigging or malpractices in the elections but larger questions about the possibility of EVMs' malfunctioning which must be addressed (as reported by the Sunday Indian Express).

The right questions?

In fact, the BJP did not rest there. One of its leading lights and present spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao devoted a book on this topic titled Democracy at risk – Can we trust our EVMs, whose foreword was again written by Advani which proves the point that he and his party, the BJP, was not convinced about the authenticity of the machines.

Another BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has been very consistent in opposing EVMs.

This matter was raised in the Supreme Court which gave a direction in 2012 for EVMs to have paper trails. The Court observed, “From the material placed by both the sides, we are satisfied that the paper trial is an indispensable requirement of free and fair election...With an intent to have fullest transparency in the system and to restore the confidence of the voters, it is necessary to set up EVMs with VVPAT (Voter-verifiable paper audit trail) system because a vote is nothing but an act of expression which has immense importance in a democratic system.”

Paper trail was introduced in 2014 Parliamentary elections in few constituencies as a pilot project and later also in Punjab and Goa Assembly elections this year.

The SC order highlights the fact that if there is doubt it has to be erased because the faith of the people in democracy hinges on the trust that elections are held in a free and fair manner.

Any doubt will create suspicion about the whole system of democratic functioning which, in the long run, might prove fatal.

The loopholes

But the application of a paper trail has been wrongly introduced by the law. Any citizen or political entity can't simply ask for counting of paper trails as it has to be mandated by the court. The remedy provided by the SC has been made complicated and cumbersome by the guiles of lawmakers.

To ask for recounting through paper trails, one has to knock the doors of the court and seek its permission – which most of the time is beyond the reach of the common man. Several AAP candidates in Punjab wanted paper trails to be counted to check the authenticity of the EVMs' results but were told by returning officers to get orders from the relevant court. The whole purpose is thereby defeated.

The argument put forward by the BJP and few of their supporters is that AAP and others are indulging in this tactic because they have lost elections; it is being dubbed the rant of losers. If it is, so then can the BJP answer as to how it would like to remember Advani's opposition to EVMs way back in 2009?

2009 was the year that the BJP had just lost elections to the Congress. Advani was then the prime ministerial candidate. The BJP was in the Opposition. One could understand the frustration of the BJP as it had lost two consecutive national elections and was about to be out of power for ten years. Was it then not a rant of a loser?

But in all this, the most heartening was the response of the then CEC SY Quraishi. He did not make a snide remark about Advani. Nor did he lecture him about self-introspection. Qureshi said, “The poll panel was absolutely satisfied that EVMs could not be manipulated.”

Qureshi was not provoked. He was dignified in his response.

Let's not forget that Advani was not alone in raising this issue. CPM and JD(U) did join in with him just as today Kejriwal is being supported by Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and the Congress.

The Congress had made a representation to the EC almost the same time that the AAP delegation met the EC on Saturday. But the EC chose to lecture only AAP on their 'introspection'. May I ask why? Is it a reflection of something deeper?

The EVM issue has again gone to the Supreme Court which has issued a notice to the EC to reply in four weeks about the questions and doubts raised by different political parties and concerned citizens. Will the EC lecture the SC too now?

The Indian Constitution is based on the separation of powers so that democracy is not converted into a dictatorship. Every institution has its role. They owe their allegiance and authority to the Constitution and not to any individual, however, mighty or popular he might be.

The lesson which I learnt as a young reporter from Seshan was simple – my past should not hinder my judgment. Those who occupy high Constitutional posts have to be above partisanship, impartial and neutral; irrespective of the ideology and allegiance to any individual.

Seshan could do that and he is remembered for the services he provided for making Indian democracy more vibrant and live.

Let's not forget history is very cruel and though the present might look bright but the future can bring the shadows.

First published: 4 April 2017, 13:30 IST