IN the Lok Sabha election 2019, hailed as a massive mandate, the BJP won 303 seats out of 543 i.e. 55 per cent of the total seats. This party had received 22.90 crore votes, which is 37 per cent of the polled votes and just about 25 per cent of the total 91 crores of eligible voters. Calling this massive mandate explains the warped nature of India’s archaic election system. In a country that boasts of using high technology (electronic) in the conduct of elections this is indeed pathetic. Is India really a representative democracy?
Within a short time, these polls have come under severe suspicion due to following reasons:
- The bias of the Election Commission towards one particular party became evident from the date of announcement of the elections. The announcements of the 2004, 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha Elections were made by the Election Commission of India (ECI) on February 29, March 1 and March 5, respectively, of those years. The announcements of State Assembly elections, due in April-May, also used to be made between March 1 and March 5. But this convention was not followed for the 2019 Lok Sabha Election and the announcement was delayed, without any explanation or justification, till March 10, 2019. There is a possibility that the ECI deliberately delayed the announcement to enable Prime Minister Narendra Modi to complete the inauguration blitz of a slew of projects (157 of them) that he had scheduled between February 8 and March 9.
- The election schedule raised many eyebrows. It was the longest election in the country’s history and gave room for suspicion that it had openly and unabashedly favoured the ruling party at the Centre. There was no apparent rationale to the number of polling days fixed for different States. In States like Tamil Nadu (39 seats), Kerala (20), Andhra Pradesh (25) and Telangana (17), where the BJP is weak and had no likelihood of winning, the polling was held in a single phase. In States with comparable or fewer Lok Sabha constituencies such as Karnataka (28), Madhya Pradesh (29), Rajasthan (25) and Odisha (21), where the BJP faced tough competition or was likely to gain ground, the polling was scheduled in multiple phases, possibly to give the PM more time for campaigning.
- Several reports were published in the media of largescale voter exclusion with some reports suggesting that voters from certain minority groups were the most affected. Many voters who had exercised their mandates in earlier elections found their names missing. The ECI’s failure to effectively answer these allegations further tarnished its reputation.
- Blatant flouting of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) by many candidates, in particular the making of hate speeches and communally loaded statements by candidates, primarily of the BJP, was, initially, blithely ignored by the ECI on the plea that it had no powers to take action. For example, Amit Shah was reported to have said that illegal immigrants would be thrown into the Bay of Bengal, a statement which clearly invited action under the Indian Penal Code and the Representation of People Act. ECI did nothing.
- Armed Forces were deliberately misused as election fodder even to the extent of calling the Army as ‘Modi’s Sena’! The Prime Minister’s blatant misuse of the Pulwama and Balakot episodes to whip up jingoistic fervour and channel it in favour of the BJP was a shocking violation of the MCC. ECI did not even issue a showcause notice to the PM for these repeated violations and there was a divide within the Commission itself on whether or not there was a breach of the MCC. The dissenting opinions of Commissioner Ashok Lavasa were trashed.
- Bias of the ECI was glaringly apparent in the case relating to Mohammed Mohsin, the IAS officer who was sent to Odisha as a special election observer. He was suspended for checking the PM’s helicopter for any non-permissible cargo.
- A serious matter in which the ECI exonerated the government of wrongdoing was the misuse of official machinery. The Niti Aayog had officially written to the various UTs and some districts in the country to provide local information about the area for the PM to use election campaigns. This was a blatant violation of the MCC, but ECI merely dismissed the complaint.
- The most glaring media violation was the opening of a new channel called Namo TV which continuously telecast speeches and events about Prime Minister Modi. Namo TV had neither obtained permission from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to go on air nor had it complied with the many regulations necessary to start a new channel. Even though ECI ordered the channel to be closed, Namo TV continued to telecast almost until the end of the elections. As per MCC, the entire expenses could have been loaded on Modi’s account and he should have been disqualified. Yet no whimper.
- In terms of transparency of electoral funding, this election was the most opaque ever, both because of the widespread use of electoral bonds and also the enormous amounts of cash, gold and drugs, amounting to Rs. 3,456 crore, which were seized during the polls.
- The use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for polling has been a subject of much controversy. Despite the ECI’s repeated statements that the EVMs used in India are tamper-proof, doubts on that score have persisted, particularly because the ECI has not been transparent in its responses to various reports. There were widespread reports of a mismatch in the number of EVMs manufactured by the two authorised PSUs and those in the inventory of the ECI. According to one media report, response to an RTI query has revealed that as many as 20 lakh EVMs that the manufacturers affirm having delivered to the ECI were apparently not in the ECI’s possession. To queries about this huge discrepancy, the ECI’s response has been a bland denial, leaving none the wiser.
- People’s confidence in the EVMs lie shattered because of the extremely negative attitude of ECI about using the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPATs) in a manner that would confirm the results of the EVMs. From the beginning, ECI was hostile to the idea of matching the number of votes recorded in EVMs with the votes in the VVPAT machines on any significant scale, despite representations by different groups, including political parties. ECI filed a false affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that tallying the votes of 50 per cent of the VVPATs with the EVMs would take about 6 days. ECI insisted that the purpose of verification would be served if such tallying was done in only one EVM per Assembly constituency. The request by a large number of parties to tally the EVM and VVPAT votes at the beginning of counting day was also turned down by the ECI without any specific reason
- During the long gap between the day of polling and counting day, there were several reports of unexplained movement of EVMs to and from the strong rooms in various states. These movements have not been satisfactorily explained, and the ECI’s bland denial, without explaining exactly which EVMs were being transported, and why, does not inspire trust or confidence.
VIEWED in totality, there is no doubt that the mandate of 2019 has been thrown into serious suspicion. The concerns raised are too central to the well-being of our democracy for the ECI to leave unexplained. In the interests of ensuring that this never happens again, ECI should have proactively issued public clarifications in respect of each of these reported irregularities, and put in place steps to prevent such incidents from occurring in future. This is essential to restore the people’s faith in our electoral process. ECI did nothing of this sort and has not even explained the huge mismatch between the votes polled and votes counted (running into millions) posted on its Website. Instead it has run for cover, even going to the extent of getting RTI Act amended to suppress information.
DESPITE ECI’s secrecy and opacity, suspicion of EVM-VVPAT fraud refuses to die down. Kannan Gopinathan, a techie-turned IAS Officer who was a Returning Officer in the last Parliament election, has first-hand knowledge. According to him, prior to the introduction of VVPAT, the EVM, which comprises of two units—ballot and Control Units—were not electronically aware as to which candidate or party is in which position in the candidate sequence.
Now a programme can be installed into VVPAT which can learn the candidate sequence in each constituency by accessing VVPAT memories and doing a pattern match to identify candidates and the symbols and “then use this information to alter the input to the Control Unit.” VVPAT was introduced to assure voters that their electronic vote has been correctly recorded in the EVM. But now the manner in which it is connected defeats its purpose, because the vote is first recorded in the VVPAT and then in the Control unit of the EVM. This is very serious matter impacting the very integrity of the electoral process which the ECI is trying to hide from the people.
According to some other findings, this fundamentally flawed process commenced in 2017 when ECI decided to print the election symbol of the candidate’s political party in the VVPAT slip. Election symbol is actually the unique identity of a political party throughout the country and it will remain the same and fixed, thus printing the election symbol is exactly the same as printing the name of the political party on the VVPAT slip. For doing this there is need to digitally insert the candidate details inside the VVPAT. It is at this point we are associating the position number of the candidate with that of his election symbol (or name of political party). It is specifically because of this linkage, now for a given political party’s election symbol irrespective of the name of its candidate, its corresponding position number on the EVM can be automatically determined by the Code of Control Unit, that too for all the EVMs. This can lead to massive transfer of votes to favoured candidates!
No wonder that Bakshish Singh Virk, BJP candidate for the Assandh constituency (Haryana) was saying this during his election campaign: “For a 5 second mistake don’t pay dearly for 5 years. We will come to know who voted for whom. Don’t be under any false illusion. We don’t deliberately tell but if someone asks who voted for whom we can tell. Because Modiji and (Manoharlal) Khattarji have hawk like eyes and are watching everything. Wherever you vote it will go to lotus. Whichever button you press vote will go to BJP because we have fixed the EVMs with a special device.” Probably he was revealing a state secret! Yet no action by the ECI.
IF India is to rightfully claim that it is a democracy, Election 2019 must come under stringent social audit and pass legal and technical scrutiny. This is particularly so because unauthorised private engineers had access to the EVM and VVPAT machines during election and Bharat Electronics Limited has refused to respond to RTI queries on EVM and VVPAT even after having collected the fees for the same.
An eminent way to rest doubts and suspicions would be to conduct a social audit on the functioning of the EVM and VVPAT machines used in the Lok Sabha election. Social audits are an accepted tool in all democracies and even in our country we have used them to monitor the functioning of various social sector programmes. Mode and methodologies can be worked out in consultation with experts and domain specialists and if ECI is worth its salt should agree to this immediately and set the ball rolling on its own.
Instead of serenading EVMs as infallible, the Chief Election Commissioner would do well to take the lead in this. As it is, under his tutelage integrity of ECI is at its nadir. If he fails in this test also Mandate 2019 will have no legs to stand!
Writer is a former Army and IAS Officer
GOVERNANCE / Elections / by MG Devasahayam