Above: The Election Commission headed by Sunil Arora did nothing to clarify several alleged irregularities in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls/Photo: UNI
The result of this election brought the credibility of the Election Commission into serious doubt and could affect future elections where there are reported irregularities
Two days before the just-concluded Haryana assembly elections, there was a video showing Bakshish Singh Virk, BJP candidate in Assandh constituency, addressing a campaign meeting. He said: “You will have to pay for a five-second mistake for the next five years. We will come to know where a person has voted. You should not have any wrong perception about it. Many people do not tell deliberately to whom they voted, but if you ask us who you voted for, we shall tell you that too because Modiji’s and Khattarji’s eyes are very sharp. May you press any of the buttons, all votes will go to the ‘lotus’ (BJP’s symbol) as we have fixed all the EVMs.” Was this man revealing a State secret? It appears so.
And what did the Election Commission (EC) do? Give routine notice to Virk and despatch a special observer to that constituency. Even during the 2019 general election, the EC’s role has been dubious. This election was hailed as a massive mandate for the BJP that won 303 seats out of 543, i.e. 55 percent. It received 22.90 crore votes, which is 37 percent of the polled votes and just about 25 percent of the total 91 crore of eligible voters. It was called a massive mandate but in a country that boasts of using high technology (electronic) in the conduct of elections, this was questionable. Is India really a representative democracy? Despite these numbers, this election was under a severe cloud due to several factors, some of which need to be reiterated:
- The EC’s bias towards one political party became evident from the date of announcement of the elections. Notifications of the 2004, 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections were made by the EC on February 29, March 1 and March 5, respectively, in those years. But this convention was not followed for the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the notification was delayed without any explanation till March 10, 2019. Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had lined up the inauguration blitz of a slew of projects (157 of them) between February 8 and March 9.
- The election schedule itself raised many eyebrows. It was the longest election in the country’s history and obviously favoured one party. 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 chance of winning, polling was held in a single phase. In states with comparable or fewer Lok Sabha seats such as Karnataka (28), Madhya Pradesh (29), Rajasthan (25) and Odisha (21) where the BJP was likely to gain ground by intensive campaigning, polling was scheduled in multiple phases.
- There were reports of large-scale voter exclusion, mainly affecting minority communities. Many voters who had exercised their mandates in earlier elections found their names missing. The EC’s failure to effectively answer these allegations further tarnished its reputation.
- The flouting of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), particularly the making of hate speeches and communally loaded statements by candidates, primarily of the BJP, was initially ignored by the EC on the plea that it had no powers to take action. Only after the Supreme Court’s prodding did the EC even admit it had powers, but hardly did anything.
- 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. The EC, strangely, did not even issue a showcause notice for these violations and there was a divide within the Commission itself on whether or not there was a breach of the MCC. The dissenting opinion of Commissioner Ashok Lavasa was trashed.
- The most blatant media violation was the opening of a new channel called Namo TV which continuously telecast speeches and events about the PM. Namo TV had neither obtained permission from the information and broadcasting ministry to go on air nor complied with the many regulations necessary to start a new channel. Even though the EC ordered the channel to be closed, Namo TV continued to telecast almost until the end of the elections. As per the MCC, the entire expenses could have been loaded on Modi’s account and he should have been disqualified. Yet, there was 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 the enormous amounts of cash, gold and drugs, estimated to be Rs 3,456 crore, seized during the polls.
- But the overriding issue is the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for polling. Despite the EC’s repeated statements that the EVMs used are tamper-proof, doubts persisted, particularly because the EC has not been transparent in its responses to various reports. According to one media report, responses to an RTI query revealed that as many as two million EVMs that the manufacturers affirm were delivered to the EC were apparently not in its possession. To queries about this huge discrepancy, the EC’s response was a bland denial.
People’s confidence in the EVMs was put to severe test because of the EC’s negative attitude on using the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) in a manner that would confirm the results of the EVMs. From the beginning, the EC refused to match the number of votes recorded in the EVMs with the votes in VVPAT machines on any significant scale, despite representations from civil society and political parties. The
EC 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 EC.
During the long gap between polling and counting, there were several reports of unexplained movement of EVMs to and from the strongrooms in various states. These movements have not been satisfactorily explained, and the EC’s denial, without explaining exactly which EVMs were being transported and why, made it worse.
Viewed in totality, it is clear that the mandate of 2019 is in serious doubt. The EC did nothing to proactively issue public clarifications on each of these reported irregularities. Nor did it put in place steps to prevent such incidents in future. Instead, it has been in denial and running for cover and even went to the extent of getting the RTI Act amended to protect itself.
Despite the EC’s secrecy and opacity, suspicion of the EVM-VVPAT fraud refuses to die down. Kannan Gopinathan, a techie-turned IAS officer who was a returning officer in the last Lok Sabha polls, has first-hand knowledge. According to him, prior to the introduction of VVPAT, the EVM, which comprises the ballot and control units, cannot be made electronically aware of which candidate or party is in which position in the candidate sequence. Now a programme can be installed into VVPATs where one can learn the candidate sequence in each constituency and a pattern match be done to identify candidates and the symbols and “then use this information to alter the input to the Control Unit”. VVPATs were introduced to assure voters that their electronic vote had been correctly recorded in the EVM. But the manner in which it is now connected defeats its purpose because the vote is first recorded in the VVPAT and then in the control unit of the EVM.
This “fundamental flaw/fraud” commenced in 2017 when the EC decided to print the election symbol of the candidate in the VVPAT slip. The symbol is the unique identity of a political party throughout the country and it will remain fixed. For printing the VVPAT slip, the candidate’s details need to be digitally inserted inside the machine. Because of this linkage, a given political party’s election symbol, irrespective of the name of its candidate and its corresponding serial number on the EVM, can be automatically determined by the code of the control unit for all EVMs. This can lead to a massive transfer of votes to favoured candidates without the knowledge of polling/election officials. This suspicion was further deepened by the dubious role played by private engineers contracted by public sector undertakings BEL and ECIL to manage EVM-VVPATs before and during the election.
Ignoring these realities, the chief election commissioner continues to say that EVMs are infallible. The more the EVMs are serenaded, Mandate 2019 itself will lose credibility.
—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer