“Electronic voting machines (EVMs) were introduced on an experimental basis in a limited way in Indian elections in 1982, and they have been in universal use since the general elections of 2004, when paper ballots were phased out completely. Is it possible therefore to say now, that the horror stories of the earlier era – of doctored electoral rolls, voter intimidation, booth capturing, et al – are a distant memory, and that we have entered a new and glorious age of clean, free and fair elections? Though the Election Commission of India would have us believe so, the ground reality is different and quite disturbing.”
This is the starting paragraphs of the book “Democracy At Risk – Can We Trust Electronic Voting Machines?” authored by BJP national spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao, published in 2010. The title of the book and caption itself is revealing.
At the time of publication of this book, no other major political parties had complaints of either EVM malfunctioning or the integrity of the Election Commission of India except the BJP. What changed since 2010 that reversed these opinions?
Now, standing at the fag end of 2017, when almost all the political parties are voicing their concerns about the reliability of EVMs and the neutrality of the Election Commission of India, BJP and its supporters – including some BJP-sympathetic journalists and corporate media houses – have gone hysterical in defending the robustness of EVMs’ security features and independence of India’s poll body.
BSP supremo Mayawati was the first politician to raise the issue of EVM tampering soon after the results for the assembly polls gave a landslide mandate to the saffron party in Uttar Pradesh. Aam Admi Party raised the same complaints. AAP went a step further and demonstrated how the EVMs could easily be hacked.
The BJP leaders and the Election Commission rubbished these complaints claiming that the EVMs used by AAP inside the Delhi assembly was not the original one and it was just a clone, which used such a technology, easy to hack. The EC added that the EVMs used by it was totally different.
The EC went ahead and announced EVM hackathon and invited all political parties to participate. (Invitation was limited only to political parties; not to professional hackers or technical experts). Just days before the hackathon, EC changed the stand and declared that the machines could not be opened and the hacking or tampering should be done externally. That itself raised a lot of questions given that many sceptics alleged that the tampering was being done in the microchips, placed on the motherboards of the machines.
Most of the parties boycotted the event saying that was an eyewash except CPI(M) and NCP. The authenticity of EVMs and its malfunctioning came under intense scanner in Delhi MCD polls, the just-concluded civic body polls of Uttar Pradesh and both the phases of Gujarat assembly polls. In all the three cases, there were many instances of voters pressing the buttons to cast their votes in favour of their choice of candidates, but machines registered vote for BJP candidates.
Same complaints were raised in Maharashtra too. Many people shot videos of the incidents and posted them on social media platforms. In between, by deliberately delaying the announcement of election dates of Gujarat assembly polls citing weird reasons, the EC once again brought its impartial image under the clouds of suspicion. On Thursday, the Congress party went to the extent of calling Chief Election Commissioner as a personal secretary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. To add to the suspicion, leading Malayalam author and Kerala Sahitya Academy Award winner N S Madhavan tweeted in a thread how the officials in polling stations in Gujarat were scaring away the complaining people by indirectly threatening of legal consequences of such complaints citing ECI guidelines.
BJP’s defences of EVM malfunctions and rigged elections are on shaky grounds because of an important reason. GVL Narasimha Rao wrote in the first chapter in his book:
“Machines are also prone to manipulations. Indian electronic voting machines are no exception. If the computers in the prime minister’s office and the personal computer of no less than the national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan have been hacked, isn’t it ludicrous to assume that electronic voting machines locked up in store rooms in districts and remote rural locations would remain secure and not fall prey to the miscreants?
“There are several instances that we have come across where machines have ‘switched’ votes between candidates and have even ‘produced’ votes that were never cast!!”
And the same BJP is defending the reliability of EVMs at a time when the complaints of malfunctioning of such machines are rampant and at an all time high. BJP’s defence could be checked with some interesting instances happened in 2010 which led to GVL Narasimha Rao to author the book.
In the last decade, BJP was too much active in highlighting the vulnerability of EVMs. Through their supported NGOs and ‘think-tanks’ namely Vivekananda Foundation and citing their ‘in-house’ and hired foreign technical experts, they regularly voiced their concerns about the malfunctioning, rigging and fraud in the voting machines.
In April 2010 Mumbai collector’s office filed a police complaint saying an EVM, bearing the serial number E-131812, has been stolen from the old custom house in Fort area.
In August 2010, a person named Hari Krishna Prasad Murali Mohan Vemuru was arrested from Hyderabad after he gave a live demonstration of the same EVM in a TV channel and claimed that the machines were handed over to him by some “sources” to highlight the vulnerability of the machine.
The news reports of that time say that the EVM went missing from EC’s EVMs storage facility itself suggesting the accessibility of EVMs to a third party. In his expose, Hari Prasad Vemuru was assisted by three foreign nationals namely Dr. Alex Halderman, Michigan University Computer Security research professor who hacked US EVMs and did work for CA state on US EVMs, Rop Gongrijjp who was instrumental in banning EVMs in Netherlands after more than 20 years in use and Dr. Till Jaeger German attorney who argued the German Supreme Court which lead to ban of EVMs in Germany.
Hari Prasad was representing an organisation called Save Indian Democracy, most of whose members were based out of USA. The Same Hari Prasad Vemuru details shows he is the Managing Director of a company called NetIndia. He is the technical coordinator of an organisation called VeTA (http://www.indianevm.com/index.php) whose national convener is GVL Narasimhan Rao.
In the same website, one can read an article penned by Rao, who argues why one should not doubt the VVPAT EVMs. Quite a spectacular U-turn within a span of seven years. But, what he conveniently chose to not mention in the article was that the technology in the EVMs which he questioned had not been changed, but only a paper print-out added to the same system. The paper print-out through VVPAT machines, however, have now become symbolic given that the Supreme Court on Friday rejected Congress party’s plea for a mandatory counting of 25% VVPAT papers. What’s the point of introducing VVPAT machines when you are never going to match the paper trails with that of the votes pressed on EVMs?
And to answer the question of the EC’s stand on the inaccessibility of EVMs and the secure environment in which it is kept, few lines from Rao’s book is worth reading once again;
“There are several personal accounts of senior politicians who have been approached by electronic “fixers” demanding hefty sums to fix elections in their favour. One such report pegs the asking amount for fixing an election in an assembly constituency at Rs. 5 crore*. Sounds like a staggering sum? Not so today. Given the scale of corruption in Indian politics, it doesn’t sound huge at all.”
“Personal accounts from well placed sources and experts say that those demanding these vast sums are “insiders”. Who are these insiders? Unlike in the traditional ballot system where only the election officials were the “insiders”, electronic voting machine regime has spawned a long chain of insiders, all of whom are outside the ambit and control of the Election Commission of India, the constitutional body vested with the authority to conduct free and fair polls. There is every possibility that some of these “insiders” are involved in murky activities in fixing elections. This is not hallucination. The whole world-except us in India – is alive to the dangers of insider fraud in elections, mostly by insiders in the electronic voting machine industry.”
So what caused the change in Rao’s stance on EVMs? After this book and Hari Prasad Vemuru’s expose, certain interesting developments took place.
In 2014 Gujarat civic polls, the Indian media widely reported that the ruling BJP had managed to get over 80% of all the polled votes. The EC then clarified that the EVMs used for that election were not procured from them.
In 2017 UP civic polls, the analysis of the election results showed that, in areas where EVMs were used, BJP scored heavily and in areas where ballot papers were used, BJP’s vote share and winning margins had shrunk significantly. In the places where EVMs were used, BJP’s numbers alone where much higher than all the opposition candidates put together. But, where ballot papers were used, 47% of BJP candidates lost their deposits.
In this video posted by Rop Gongrijjp, one of the team members of Hari Prasad Vemuru, explains the vulnerabilities of Indian EVMs. It will be foolish to believe that VVPAT and EVMs can’t be manipulated.
EC’s silence and BJP’s unprecedented support for the EVMs after enjoying successive election victories raise enough questions. Why can’t EC organise an open hackathon? To conclude, read the lines from GVL Narasimha Rao’s book once again:
“Electronic voting machines, like all other machines, are prone to errors and malfunctioning. No machine ever made anywhere in the world is infallible. They can never be.”