MUMBAI: A ‘malfunctioning’ Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) from Madhya Pradesh has stirred a hornets nest. In a now viral video of April 1, the VVPAT Machine being used for a demo for the forthcoming MP elections, was seen as recording and dispensing only BJP votes, regardless of various party’s button pressed.

A week later, on Friday April 7, the ECs has given a clean chit to itself in the case. How can an accused body give a clean chit to itself? Shouldn’t the EC have utilized a third party or an independent observer in this case?

The Bhind incident has given newfound ammunition to the opposition parties that have been raising the issue of possible tampering of EVMs since March 11, when the votes were counted for the recently concluded Assembly elections in five states. The demand for an impartial investigation has gained resonance though the EC seems impervious to these concerns, and has been insisting that the EVM machines are infallible. The first to raise the issue was Mayawati, and her Bahujan Samaj party has decided to start a nationwide protest on this issue from Tuesday, April 11.

Even before the Bhind incident, voters in the recently concluded BMC municipal elections in Maharashtra had alleged large scale fraud. On April 6, 600 people submitted an affidavit to the Mumbai high court saying that their vote was “stolen” and not registered in favour of the candidate they voted for.

The Rajya Sabha on April 5 saw unprecedented ruckus with the entire Opposition uniting and shouting slogans “EVM ki sarkaar nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi” . (EVM Government must go). The reason was the April 1 video from Bhind that rendered the Election Commission’s March 16th press release meaningless. In a press release, the ECI had unequivocally reiterated that “given effective technical and administrative safeguards, EVMs are not temperable and integrity of electoral process is preserved.”

The March 16 statement by the ECI raised two major question marks that will have a far reaching impact.

One, the ECI’s affirmation that EVMs are infallible and are fully tamper-proof was busted when the Madhya Pradesh EVM Machine on April 1, started dispensing only the BJP party’s symbol, irrespective of the button pressed. This clearly meant that the machine the software of the machine had been compromised as it was storing all votes for just one party, in this case the BJP. So obviously EVMs are not foolproof as the ECI has been claiming.

Second, the ECI attempted to downplay the EVM malfunctioning, attributing it to lapse in procedure. ”This is a standard protocol and there was nothing amiss ...According to standard protocol, the old symbols are erased only during first level checking before the next poll. However, it was not done when the demonstration was made on March 31 at Bhind...for which the Commission has replaced the District Election Officer."

This explanation raises more questions than answers. It means that it is possible to have incorrect results coming out of EVMs if the machines are not handled “properly”. Moreover, the question arises whether the protocol was followed during the Uttar Pradesh elections for all EVMs in all the constituencies. If not, then the machines would have followed the pattern of the previous elections of which it had residual data — which could very well be Maharashtra where the BJP had won by a landslide in local body elections just a month ago.

Also, how the lapse in erasing an old symbol could possibly result in all votes subsequently going in favour of one party, was not satisfactorily explained.

The mainstream media to an extent raised this issue after the social media had picked this up and the ECI had to suspend the DM and SP of the district for “administrative lapses”.But even so it remained, and remains, adamant that there is no case for a larger probe as several Opposition parties are now demanding.

That the EVM machines were tampered was first alleged by BSP chief Mayawati, whose party was decimated in the Uttar Pradesh elections. But she found support from Lalu Prasad Yadav, Arvind Kejrival and even the Samajwadi party. BJP called them bad losers and the mainstream media too did the same, criticising the Opposition for even raising the issue.

In these criticisms, one critical question was missing —the VVPAT system. In its order on October 8, 2013,( petitioner was BJP’s Subramanian Swamy), the Supreme Court had ruled, “The confidence of the voter in the EVM machine can be achieved only with the introduction of a paper trail. With the intention to have fullest transparency and to restore the confidence of the voters, it is necessary to set EVMs with a VVPAT system because a vote is nothing but an act of expression which has immense importance in the democratic system”.

This order is indeed of immense importance. The order takes into account the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court that the EVMs in its current form (without VVPAT) were tamper-proof and fully reliable.

The SC did not accept the contention and asked ECI to implement VVPAT. Now,

what would have happened if there was no VVPAT (Voter Verification Paper Audit Trail) attached to the faulty machine in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh? Perhaps, nobody would have ever known that despite pressing the button for various parties, the final vote was being cast only for BJP.

As the Supreme Court rightly said, VVPAT is an indispensable part of the EVM machines.Given the enormous numbers of EVMs involved the apex court permitted “ implementation of such a system (VVPAT) in gradual stages or geographical-wise in the ensuing general elections” and directing the Government of India to “provide required financial assistance for procurement of units of VVPAT.”

3 Years and 3 months since this order, and numerous state elections and one general election of 2014, the proportion of VVPAT machines installed is miniscule. During UP elections, only 20 constituencies had VVPAT out of 403 constituencies.

And what does the ECI say about the progress? A press release of ECI said that it was “relentlessly pursuing with the Govt. for sanction and release of funds of Rs. 3174 cr requisite number of VVPATs so that they could be used in all PCs in GE to Lok Sabha in 2019. The ECI will get the requisite number of VVPAT manufactured in 30 months time from the time of release of fund by the government.”

The Election commission stated that it has procured 20,000 VVPATs in 2013 and has since used VVPATs in 143 Assembly Constituencies. But So far, VVPATs have been used in 255 Assembly Constituencies and 09 Parliamentary Constituencies.

Why was ECI initially reluctant to the idea of VVPAT? When the SC has stated that VVPAT is an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections, why is the ECI moving at a snails pace?

A SC bench issued a notice to the ECI on March 24 as to why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against it for its failure to use Electronic Voting Machines with Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail in "true spirit" of the directions of the aoex court in October 2013. A contempt petition filed in March this year by Waman Meshram of BAMCEF organization stated that ECI was not following the SC order to implement VVPAT.

This news was missing from the mainstream headlines and also missing from headlines was the fact that ECI would not be ready before the 2019 elections with a 100% VVPAT system.

The ECI had replied to the SC was that it would take it 30 months to manufacture and install VVPAT machines after the Modi government sanctions Rs 3174 Crore.

To see how serious Election commission is about having the VVPAT can be gauged from the fact that it reportedly told the SC that it would have all VVPAT machines ready for all 2019 general election constituencie only Sep 2019, provided funds were released immediately.

This means that ECI now plans to hold the 2019 Lok Sabha elections without the necessary paper trail in most constituencies.. One fails to understand why the ECI has not put the onus of releasing the funds on the central government, rather than writing numerous unanswered letters. It could have approached the Supreme Court to order speedy dispensation of the funds so that VVPAT machines can be installed at the earliest. But the ECI doesn’t seem to be in a hurry for reasons beyond comprehension.

Instead of acting fast as per the SC Order, and being spurred further by the Bhind incident, the ECI has crossed the line to engage politically with the Aam Aadmi Party. In an unprecedented statement the ECI said to Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s Chief Minister, “it is for your party to introspect as to why your party could not perform as per your expectation, and it is unfair on the part of your party to attribute unsatisfactory poll performance of your party to the alleged tamperability of the EVMs.”

This would be perhaps the first time ECI has asked a political party to introspect after election results. Former Chief Election Commissioner Mr. S. Y. Qureshi has criticized this statement by the CEC and asked it to avoid making political statements. He said that doubts about the EVMs should be taken seriously, and went on to ask the ECI to apologise insisting that the VVPAT be implemented “without delay.”

The Madhya Pradesh EVM case stresses on the fierce urgency for a paper trail, without which there is no way for the voter to know whether his vote has been given to the right candidate. A doubt in the voters’ mind, doubled by recent developments, does not augur well for our democracy. Every attempt must be made so that the common people’s faith in the election process is sustained.