Saturday, 6 May 2017

How to call opposition parties’ bluff on EVMs







After as many as 16 opposition parties questioned the reliability of electronic #votingmachines (EVMs), the Election Commission of India which has repeatedly claimed that the EVMs are tamperproof has convened an all-party meeting on May 12 to discuss the issue.   

The issue is neither new nor as simple as to be resolved through dialogue.

In 2009, when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) got majority in the general election second time in a row, the BJP cried that the EVMs had been manipulated. A BJP leader wrote a whole book to substantiate the allegation. 

The table turned in 2014. The Congress and other losers accused the BJP of manipulating #EVMs while BJP supporters argued that the powerful Modi wave, effectively channelised by party President Amit Shah, sent BJP voters in large number to polling booths. The allegation of manipulation of or tampering with EVMs grew louder after the BJP’s exceptional performance   in UP and Uttrakhand and better-than-expected performance in Goa and Manipur. The losers – Samajwadi Party and Congress in UP, AAP in Punjab and Goa and  BSP in UP in particular – decided that they would not keep quiet. 

Kejriwal who lodged a formal complaint with the Election Commission to reiterate that his party lost in Punjab and Goa because of tampering with EVM s, became more vocal after his party got just 48 against its expectation of about 220 seats in the Delhi Municipal Corporation (DMC) elections and the BJP captured all the three corporations despite its miserable track record. Even after admitting that the AAP lost DMC elections due to its own weaknesses, Kejriwal appears to be in no mood to accept that EVMs are tamper-proof. His information technology experts are stated to be ready to prove that the first generation EVMs – EVMs without paper trail – which have been predominantly used so far and will continue to be used before 2019 general election, can be manipulated. Earlier, Kejriwal had said that if the Election Commission gave him an EVM for 72 hours, he would prove his allegation.

On April 13, 13 opposition parties including Congress marched to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and presented a memorandum to the President. A PIL has been filed in Supreme Court to direct the election commission to go back to the paper-ballot system. In Uttarakhand as many as seven Congress candidates who lost in the recent State Assembly election have filed petitions in the State High Court. Taking cognizance of petitions, a single-judge bench has ordered seizure of all EVMs used in those constituencies and has issued notices to the Election Commission of India, State Election Commission and others to reply within six weeks. Admitting a petition filed by the Congress candidate who lost to the BJP candidate in October 2014 Assembly election, the Bombay High Court has ordered that the EVMs from a particular booth in the Parvatti constituency in Pune should be sent for forensic analysis to detect any sign of tampering. The losing candidate has alleged that he polled fewer votes than expected.

Not just political parties, in the past, several experts have claimed that more than one technologies are available to manipulate EVMs: chips can be inserted to transfer votes to the desired candidate; EVMs can be pre-programmed to get the desired candidate elected; even after voting is over, old data can be deleted and desired data fed.
Recently, the Election Commission released data to prove that in the constituencies where voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines were used, the number of votes polled by each candidate counted by EVMs tallied with the number of paper trails counted. However, the Commission has clarified that sufficient number of VVPAT  machines would not be available before the general election 2019; therefore, in the elections including assembly elections in certain states to be held before 2019 only a limited number of VVPAT  machines can be used.

Some critics have expressed fear that the use of VVPAT machines may lead to new controversies when in the event of challenge to results of an election, voters may claim that the paper trails do not correctly reflect their votes. This, however, is not a serious problem if it is made mandatory for voters to sign paper trails.

As long as only or mainly the first generation EVMs are used, the controversy is unlikely to be resolved through dialogue. The experts engaged by the opposition parties will try to manipulate or tamper with one machine or a couple of machines. Assuming they succeed, it is sufficient to prove that the EVMs can be manipulated to ensure victory of a particular candidate in election which he or she would have otherwise lost. However, that does not establish the charge that manipulation can be done on scale large enough to ensure victory or defeat of a particular party or even a particular candidate.

Therefore, the Election Commission should adopt a different strategy which may be effective. 

I am not an expert on information technology. However, on the basis of my experience of project management over a period of nearly 25 (twenty-five) years, I can suggest the strategy the Election Commission should adopt to call opposition parties’ bluff. The project management technique can be effectively used to resolve varieties of issues.

My suggestion is that instead of just giving opportunity to the critics to manipulate a couple of machines, the Election Commission should ask each challenger to submit a feasibility report on the technology and its application on mass scale.

Anyone familiar with the stages through which a technology is developed, knows that a technology which is successful at laboratory stage or under controlled conditions requires significant upgradation for use on commercial scale. Similarly, a technology which can be used for tampering with a small number of EVMs under controlled conditions does not mean that it can be used on a mass scale to influence election results of large number of candidates. In Delhi Municipal Corporation elections, about 13,000 EVMs were used. The number of EVMs used in UP assembly election was more than 1 lakh.

Therefore, my suggestion is that before entering into confrontation with the opposition parties, the Election Commission should ask each challenger to prepare a feasibility report on “Project EVM Manipulation” to show to the nation that manipulation can be done successfully on a mass scale. I can provide a brief guideline to carry out feasibility study. The feasibility study should answer the questions listed below.
(1) Technologies available for different types of voting machines: brief description of each technology (specifying whether the particular technology is for stand-alone machines as used in India or for inter-connected, through wire or internet, machines or for both); name of the inventor and period of invention; claims made by the inventor with proof; the scale on which each technology has been used; technology which has been used in India to influence election results so far.  

(2) Readiness of a technology or technologies for mass application: detailed information about the technology which has or can be been used on a mass scale i.e. in several constituencies at the same time to influence results.

 (3) Accessibility to EVMs for manipulation: since EVMs are always kept safely to prevent access of unauthorised persons, methods to be adopted by manipulators for access to tamper with machines.

(4) Time, and resources (number of expert operators, cost, logistics, etc.) required for manipulation of EVMs to influence results of election of, say, Delhi Assembly.

(5) Risks and uncertainties: chances of detection during demonstration before polling starts; chances of detection during or after voting; chances of failure of the technology during its application.

I doubt if any challenger would be able to produce feasibility report covering the above points. Assuming that some are able to produce feasibility reports, experts may be requisitioned to study all the reports and, if necessary, a mock election can be held in a dozen or more constituencies to see whether manipulations are really possible.

Only such a strategy can resolve the controversy once for all.

Devendra Narain

May 06, 2017
A former head of the Project Appraisal Division of the Planning Commission

(Updated on May 8, 2017) 

#ElectionCommission