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EVM hacking: Why the EC needs to stand up for democracy and not feel offended

Ashutosh | Updated on: 13 May 2017, 18:55 IST
(Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubt, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties."

- Francis Bacon

The doubts raised recently about EVM tampering can be dubbed a journey of exploration to hunt for certainties.

On 12 May, the Election Commission of India (EC) called an all-party meeting to discuss these doubts and find a solution. But the meeting was a sham: the EC could not satisfy the participants' desire for truth; neither could it provide an answer to the question of whether EVMs are tamper proof or not.

At best, it only repeated that the system is robust and that there is no possibility of the machines being manipulated. It also declared that in the future, voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) would be used in all the machines, which means paper trails will be added to comply with the Supreme Court order.

Not a good sign for democracy

But the EC has failed to understand two fundamentals of the human nature and democracy - that one doubt breeds another; that democracy is about building consensus, respecting disagreements, resolving differences, bridging conflicts and evolving systems which people are willing to believe in. Once a doubt has been created in the minds of the people; it becomes difficult to trust unless a logical response is found.

Pronouncing EVMs as tamper proof or beyond manipulation despite the large-scale outcry by opposition parties is not a good sign for democracy.

The sequence of events over the last few months is indicative of the fact that scepticism about the veracity of the machines has only deepened. More and more people and parties are asking questions. 

Almost all national and regional parties present at the meeting, barring the BJP and a few of its supporters, demanded to change the present system and go for ballot papers or an alternate method.

The EC’s failure

Unfortunately, the EC has processed the entire endeavour as an exercise of "No-Confidence" in the Election Commission and its commissioners, which is absolutely baseless.

Rather, it is an exercise to make the entire system more foolproof and weed out the faultlines if any; it is an attempt to evolve the process of elections to a new level of trust as human civilisation is a quest to attain higher levels of sophistication and perfection.

The EC has to understand that its rigid stand and the BJP's defence will do more harm than good.

BJP’s double game

It was the same BJP which was the first to point fingers at EVMs - its then tallest leader LK Advani had questioned it, first in a press conference and later in a book about how democracy is at risk due to the usage of EVMs. That EVMs can't be trusted.

BJP's spokesperson G V L Narasimha Rao has written an entire book to demystify the truthfulness of machines. Subramaniam Swami had even gone to the Supreme Court on this very issue.

Now the same BJP has taken a U-turn. Why? What has changed since 2009? No logical explanation has been given by the BJP, the EC or by any experts or engineers which could put a full stop to entire debate.

Today, the BJP's turn around on this issue sounds mysterious and shadowy after the unbelievable scale of victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand Assembly elections. In Punjab, where the Aam Aadmi Party was considered to be the frontrunner with a huge margin, the party was relegated to a poor second place whereas the Congress unbelievably gained more than 80 seats.

Several sociopolitical reasons have been given, but people have serious doubts about the results which has resulted in the cry for removal of EVMs, and asking for a return of ballot papers. People on the ground are asking if there is any connection between the EC's rigidity and the BJP's prompt defence of the EVMs? Though this may not have any truth in it, but questions are abound and answers are elusive.

The new narrative

The BJP has been trying to build a new narrative, in the name of nationalism and patriotism, since it formed the government at the Centre.

The discourse is that the government narrative should be the narrative of the country, the Prime Minister can't be criticised, the Army is above criticism, and no alternate debate should be encouraged on the issue of Kashmir-Naxalism-terrorism-and-Pakistan.

Those who don't subscribe to the government's viewpoint are immediately branded as traitors or anti-nationals.

Similarly, the EVM debate has been termed an assault and insult to Indian democracy, critics are accused of tarnishing the image of India globally; right wingers allege that it is an attempt to nullify the great achievements of Indian democracy since 1952, when the first parliamentary elections were held.

The obvious question is - is the BJP guilt ridden? Why is it taking it to the other extreme if the present government has no role in it, especially when the debate is between the ECI and the parties and the people of India? 

Nationalism can't be the monopoly of the government of the day or of the ruling party. The Opposition is equally proud of Indian democracy and its parliamentary system. India could withstand all storms and scepticism of foreign historians, analysts and political leaders, who said that India would disintegrate in a few years after Independence, due to the powerful assertion of the will of the people expressed through the electoral process after every few years.

Democratic process

People's faith in democracy was not shaken when large scale rigging and violence was the order of the day on or before the polling day. Application of EVMs was a step in the direction of electoral reforms for conducting elections in a more free and fair manner, for creating a level playing field for all the stakeholders of democracy.

Today, if there is a demand for change in the electoral process then why should it not be heard? Why should it not be treated as another suggestion for electoral reforms?

In a technological age, the manipulation of EVMs is not just a possibility - it is a real threat. Just to illustrate the point, AAP MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj demonstrated just that on live TV in the Delhi Assembly. According to him, only 90 seconds are needed to change the motherboard of the EVM and that his team can alter any machine, be it generation 1, 2 or 3. The system's vulnerability can also be gauged from another scary fact.

Troubleshooting hardware

Only two companies - ECIL (Electronics Corporation of India) and BEL (Bharat Electronics Limited) manufacture EVMs in India, but the software programme of EVMs are not made in the country.

For that, the services of the Renesas in Japan and Microchip in the US are obtained. These two foreign companies programme the top secret code given by the Indian companies but once the code is written in the software even these two companies can't verify if it was written according to their prescribed demands.

This is scary as once software is written it can't be re-read or re-written. So who can guarantee that ‘top secret code’ has not been manipulated at the source? Even the EC cannot guarantee this as it has no tools for verification.

Even the EC does not have the tools to check if the software has been manipulated at its source

The EC proclaims that before every elections, engineers go and check machines but they only check the hardware part, not the software. This is a superficial exercise. If Saurabh and his team can change the motherboard, insert a new code then it can also easily be done in the storeroom and afterwards. Therefore EC's argument is not on firm ground. Its logic is slippery.

The ECI and the BJP should realise that democracy is all about trust and faith. To keep that trust above suspicion a continuous improvement is required. I am sure that the present doubt will lead to certainties.

But for that people's demand has to be heard and corrective measures have to be taken. People's cynicism is the biggest threat to democracy. It should not be allowed to breathe easy. 

The writer is a member of the Aam Aadmi Party.

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

First published: 13 May 2017, 18:07 IST