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Were there EVMs in the 1930s?

March 21, 2017


HOW can the opposition wrest power from Prime Minister Modi in 2019? If everybody is united and their votes are not split, the 41 per cent the prime minister’s party got with his allies in Uttar Pradesh, for example, would see him struggling against a united 59pc. Such wishful arguments have been heard in unyielding and combative liberal spaces over the last few days. Serious analysts, however, seem cautious about such a turn of events.

Some critics of the government have raised the issue of electronic voting machines (EVMs) as the more insurmountable of the challenges they could face in 2019, as if getting the incorrigibly fractious opposition together was the easier part.

In 2009, the anti-EVM boot was on the other foot. The Manmohan Singh government was returned for a second term in spite of (some say because of) its apparent soft handling of the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008. The BJP was not expecting Congress to win and one of its younger leaders shot off a complaint against the EVMs used in Dr Singh’s second election in the form of a book.

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, currently the BJP’s spokesperson, titled his plaint Democracy at Risk! Can we trust our Electronic Voting Machines? Senior BJP leader Lal Kishan Advani wrote the foreword to the book, which was published in 2010.

Electronic voting machines, like all other machines, are prone to errors and malfunctioning.

Around this time, Subramanian Swamy, another BJP stalwart, took the issue to the court. He argued forcefully that EVMs were a terrible idea and listed the number of countries that had rejected it. His comments against EVMs are available on YouTube but surprisingly no TV channel or newspaper wants to know how he feels about the system of paper-free voting today.

When the BJP scored a resounding victory in Uttar Pradesh recently, former chief minister Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) turned out to be a big loser. She immediately cast aspersions on EVMs and claimed the electronic system was rigged. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was also perplexed by the less than handsome showing of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab even though the new entrant emerged as the main opposition to the Congress there, which, according to him, unexpectedly won in Punjab.

Mr Kejriwal and Ms Mayawati are on the opposite ends of the probity scale. She is accused of corruption and he has been leading a campaign against corruption. But the two may have an amazing factor in common. Neither of them is known to have generous friends in the corporate world, certainly not of the scale that approaches their major rivals.

The AAP uses crowd sourcing to raise funds while Ms Mayawati reportedly counts on her candidates to fend for themselves. The effect of this could be similar to what renowned filmmaker Saeed Mirza told me years ago. He said if you don’t borrow money from the market, and get funded by the government, for example, your movie would struggle to find a theatre for a halfway decent release.

We have not heard of any serious complaints from any other party about the EVMs, except the BSP and AAP. It is believed powerful business captains regard the two as a threat to their hold on Indian politics. However, when BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu said there was nothing wrong with EVMs, but there was something wrong with Ms Mayawati, he may not have been aware of what his own party leaders had said about electronic voting.

“In many democracies of the world, the issue of electronic voting machines has become a matter of widespread public discussion,” Mr Advani wrote in his foreword to Mr Rao’s book. “In India, we have been conducting our elections through this device for the last two Lok Sabha elections and also in various assembly elections held recently. But as yet there has been little debate on how useful these machines have proved.”

He was happy that the author had managed to compile “all the facts he could on the subject and initiate a debate”. There has been no debate really, only accusations. The election commission insists the EVMs it uses are tamper-proof, which means that India has found a way to assemble a foolproof system that Germany and other Western democracies couldn’t.

“I personally regard it significant that Germany, technologically, one of the most advanced countries of the world, has become so wary of EVMs as to ban their use altogether,” Mr Advani wrote, echoing more or less the sentiments Mr Swamy had expressed. “Many states in the USA have mandated that EVMs can be used only if they have a paper back-up. So manufacturers of electronic voting machines in the USA have developed a technology referred to as Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT).” India’s election commission has been reportedly asking the Modi government for the last two years to fund this paper-linked improvement but the response is tardy.

Every voter using the EVM in many US states gets a printout in a ballot box so that if there is any discrepancy in the machine the paper ballots can be counted. Electronic voting machines, like all other machines, are prone to errors and malfunctioning. No machine is infallible. They can never be. This was the sentiment of the book Mr Rao wrote.

For instance, he pointed out, the electronic voting system installed in India’s parliament, had failed on a number of occasions and MPs had difficulty in registering their votes.

In the confidence vote on the Manmohan Singh government in September 2008, 54 Lok Sabha MPs failed to register their votes electronically. They were finally allowed to vote manually.

Remember though that in the 1930s Europe, there were no EVMs. It was Hermann Goering strategically installed as president of the Reichstag who helped Hitler fudge a make-or-break parliamentary vote and lured a gullible people with fascism’s mysterious appeal.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2017