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If EC's credibility is under question, shouldn't one "assume" EVMs might be tampered?

Counterview Desk
Gauhar Raza, scientist, documentary film maker and poet; senior human rights activist Shabnam Hashmi of the Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD); military veteran Major Priyadarshi Chowdhury (retd); and Sucheta De and Sandeep Saurav of the All India Students' Association (AISA), have asked “individuals, organisations and people's movements” to send their endorsement to an appeal they have prepared on Electronic Voting Machine (EVM).
To be sent to political parties as part of a campaign against Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), they have insisted that the move is meant to “safeguard electoral process and save Indian democracy”, adding, all those wishing to support the appeal could send their endorsement to the email id  anhad.delhi@gmail.com by June 16, 6 pm.

Text of the appeal

After the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were announced, political parties as well as several political commentators are trying to understand the social and political reasons leading to the 2019 verdict. These analyses have largely focused on political and organisational limitations of the opposition compared to the RSS-BJP.
While we recognise the urgent need to address these political and organisational challenges, it is equally important to recognise the threat to Indian democracy being posed by the use of EVMs. It is, indeed, the X factor, the one concern in Indian politics which we can ill afford to ignore in our fight to defend the idea of India.
During 2019 Election, several startling facts regarding EVM have come into public domain. To begin with, let us look at a few of them. There is serious mismatch between the voter turnout/votes polled data on the EVM and the votes counted data on EVMs, both shared by the EC, in 373 constituencies which went to poll in the first four phases of Lok Sabha Elections 2019.
Just days before Election result, several videos of EVMs being stored in illegal cars and shops and moved, surfaced on social media platforms. A public interest litigation in Bombay High Court also points out that 20 lakh EVMs have gone “missing” from the possession of the EC! The fact that EVMs are manufactured by the Electronics Corporation of India and Bharat Electronics, under the direct control of the Central Government, is a further cause of serious concern.
There is an unimaginable scale of possibility of manipulation through EVM and if we restrict ourselves only to political and organisational factors behind the 2019 verdict, and if we ignore the EVM factor completely, we are sure to arrive at a wrong conclusion for course correction. Presently every opposition party is doing an introspection of its campaign and organisation.
The reports of these meetings that have emerged in the public domain tell us that opposition parties are only blaming factors within and amongst themselves (factionalism, inability to mobilise, wrong political strategies and slogans, etc.). This approach is partial and is likely to be self-defeating. This is not to say that introspection and self-criticism is not needed. It is simply to say that this it is NOT enough.
Gauhar Raza, Priyadarshi Chowdhury. Shabnam Hashmi
It is important to take into account the possible X factor, namely EVM tampering, to complete the analysis. If EVM is indeed a factor, then failure to recognise this would lead to serial mistakes in course correction strategies for the following reasons:
  • The very real possibility of EVM tampering endangers a crucial dimension of India’s democracy i.e. peoples’ right to free and fair voting. It is worse than open booth capturing because it would enjoy far greater legitimacy, as it would be invisible, technology-driven and could steal peoples mandate without being discovered.
  • If EVM tampering is a possible factor affecting the outcome, it is outside the control of the opposition parties but within the control of the party which is in power and which can have a de facto control over the Election Commission. Therefore addressing this factor requires special political planning and strategy.
  • Suppose the political and organisation strategy of Opposition parties is by and large correct, and it is the EVM that tilted the final balance towards their defeat, then non-recognition of EVM factor will push political parties to doubt their correct political/organisational strategies and push them in a wrong direction of course correction, leading to serial errors in future strategies.
  • The depth and scale of BJP victories in the Hindi heartland states and the total elimination of major opponents should raise alarm bells about the real possibility of EVM tampering. It was encouraging to see how opposition parties came together since last October to demand return to ballot papers or counting of all VVPAT slips. However, this was not pursued consistently and attempts were not made to build a mass campaign on the ground. It is now proved beyond doubt that the opposition strategy so far on EVMs of hesitant petitioning of a compromised EC or the Supreme Court without building mass struggle has failed miserably. The hesitation within opposition parties, driven by the fear that they would be perceived as already defeated if they talked about EVM tampering, should no longer deter them as they have already been so squarely routed. If there is the slightest chance that EVM tampering is in play, then no crucial election of significance might be won by the opposition even after they have correctly mended their other weaknesses. BJP may still allow for some sporadic and marginal victories to the opposition here and there, so that people and the opposition remain permanently confused about whether or not to question EVMs.
  • EVM tampering can manufacture a distorted political narrative, demoralise the opponents and derail united strategies. For example, even if we were to assume that BJP was a front runner in the recent polls, the EVM tampering may have guaranteed their victory with 100% surety. More significantly, if the EVM tampering helped BJP to expand its winning margin and push its vote share above 50%, then it has become a handy tool to make BJP appear invincible and fan despondency in the opposition camp, spawning the narrative that even a united opposition can never defeat BJP, as the latter’s vote share was anyway above 50%.
Here, it is important not to fall into the trap of blind ‘support’ vs ‘rejection’ of the possibility of EVM tampering. The point is that the Indian voter should not be asked to blindly trust machines and accept the ‘assurances’ of ‘experts’.
Every voter, irrespective of their level of literacy, education, or expertise should be able to transparently verify, with their own eyes, that their vote that has gone into the box will be counted. This is the reason why paper ballots are preferred even in advanced countries where the best technology is cheaply available. The voter deserves to be completely convinced about the efficacy and legitimacy of the electoral process. This is paramount in a democracy.
Whether or not EVMs were tampered with in this particular election, the point is that any machine can be tampered with, and machines are only as trustworthy as the institution and individuals that control them. The credibility of the EC institution was at an all-time low in the 2019 elections, with blatant bias, unanswered questions, patently false information, opaqueness and glaring unexplained errors marring the whole exercise of polling and counting.
If the ECs credibility is under question, should we not assume that EVMs too might be tampered? Opposition parties need to take steps towards building public support for a return to paper ballots. 

Possibilities of EVM tampering

Let us look at some of the key arguments being offered in defence of EVMs. Let us ask ourselves: what is the nature of this defence? Is it being suggested that technically speaking EVMs can never be tampered? Or is it being suggested that tampering of EVMs would require the involvement of thousands of people and several institutions, which is highly unlikely?
It is clear that EVMs can be compromised. There is no technological reason to prevent the tampering of EVMs. Yes, this would require a serious compromising of institutions and institutional mechanisms. In the given political climate in India, where we are witnessing the complete breakdown of several institutions, we are therefore left with little confidence that tampering could never have happened.
In particular, the track record of the ECI in the EVM controversy has been dubious, to say the least. In fact, the ECI itself has allowed for doubts regarding EVMs to creep in:
  • They have supplied patently false information in response to serious questions.
  • The regulations and safeguards that are supposed to prevent the tampering of EVMs have often been publicly flouted.
The ECI has said several times that the software used in EVMs is One Time Programmable (OTP), and thus cannot be rewritten and tampered with. The ECI has also consistently claimed that unlike machines in Europe for instance, EVMs in India are stand-alone devices unconnected to the Internet. 
Sucheta De, Sandeep Saurav
This lack of internet connectively in the use of Indian EVMs has been highlighted time and again to suggest that EVMs cannot be hacked because they cannot be remotely controlled via the internet.
We now know that these claims no longer stand up to strict scrutiny. A response to a Right to Information (RTI) query tells us that the software in EVMs is not OTP and can indeed be rewritten. Similarly, it has been proved that remote access software can be (illegally) installed in EVM machines, thus enabling them to be manipulated via the internet by external agents (see for instance this article which states that machines used in the 2016 US Presidential Elections were compromised).
In addition, EVM manufacturers and distributers admit that EVMs are not always GPS-tracked and transported under strict supervision. According to a recent RTI query, around 20 lakh EVM machines are effectively missing. In another RTI response, the ECI refuses to share the GPS data of trucks transporting EVMs.
Given this backdrop, fears of mass EVM tampering or swapping refuse to wither away. During the 2017 assembly elections in Uttarakhand, serial numbers of some EVMs used during the polling process (and recorded in forms submitted by the ECIs Presiding Officers for the concerned booth) did not tally with the serial numbers in the EVMs used during counting. The Uttarakhand case has been pending in the HC for 2 years now, with no verdict.
In other words, some of the tall claims being put forward by the ECI have by now been completely debunked, thus leaving us with little trust in the ECI and its many assurances. We need to ask: WHY is the ECI (and the BJP) so reluctant to allow for 100% verification of EVM votes through VVPAT slips? Why are they so reluctant to address ANY of the concerns? What is the reason for this lack of transparency? Why are they constantly trotting out false pieces of information?
Botswana is witnessing strong political debates over use of EVMs imported from India. In response to several objections raised by the Opposition Botswana Congress Party (BCP) in the Botswana court, the independent election commission (IEC) in Botswana, over the past one year, has repeatedly requested the EC of India (ECI) to depose in Botswana’s courts and demonstrate the infallibility of EVMs imported from India.
The ECI has till now failed to comply and there are reports (click here and here) that faced with this challenge it is now planning to design an EVM for Botswana that is different from the one used in India!
Why is the ECI so reluctant to stand up before institutional scrutiny of its own EVMs in Botswana? In India, the ECI is arrogantly escaping from all questions and demanding that we unthinkingly ‘trust’ its self-certification. And when institutions such as Botswana’s IEC ask accountability from it, the ECI runs away.

Platitudes and self-certification cannot substitute transparent public scrutiny

The fact of the matter is: platitudes, opaque expert opinions, and self-certifications by the ECI cannot assure credibility of the EVM-based electoral process. In a democracy, it is important that the voter trust the final verdict of the elections.
The individual voter cannot be asked to unthinkingly trust the ECI and the EVM machine, even as serious concerns are raised. This situation is not sustainable in the democracy. Therefore, it is our collective responsibility to address this issue with the seriousness it requires.
We appeal to all political parties to urgently recognize the threats posed by the manipulations of EVM that compromise a free and fair election. We urge you to initiate immediate measures for public awareness regarding possible manipulation by EVM. We also request you to move forward to reject EVM and revert back to paper ballot, and if necessary to boycott election to press forward this demand. We must collectively intervene to safeguard our democracy and for transparency in the electoral process.

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