As India waits for May 23 and the Lok Sabha results it is necessary to take stock of the immense damage done to the democratic structure of the country during this campaign. The Election Commission of course, has publicly demonstrated a bias that prevented it from taking note, and acting against, statements that targeted communities, or reflected sentiment that knocks at the Preamble of the Indian Constitution enshrining secularism. But there has been far more to it than that - even those seeking a change in the ruling dispensation have fallen prey to conspiracy theories that erode an ordinary voter’s faith in the institutions of democracy which contest and supervise elections in India. This is a very dangerous development, and a first since Independence, where the voter does not trust the system to honour his or her vote.

The ruling dispensation at the centre is to blame for this. But unfortunately, the conspiracy theories are pouring out from the more fearful side of the Opposition as was most apparent after the exit polls, which even had leaders like Mamata Banerjee tweeting about possible EVM tampering. EVMs are an issue that the Opposition should have dealt with one way or the other over the past five years or more. If political parties believe that these can be tampered with to the extent that the flood of posts on the social media are maintaining, then they should have sat in protest until the Election Commission and the courts had rectified the problem to their satisfaction. This did not happen in a concerted way through these five years, except for an occasional delegation that kept the issue alive without actually forcing a solution.

The result is growing disbelief and scepticism about the vote itself, which is a first for independent India. That polling booths were captured is an old story but that the vote once cast could travel to some other party is a dangerous first, as it is shaking the very foundation of electoral democracy: the ballot.

Besides EVMs the number of conspiracy theories floated after the exit polls is not just surprising but sinister. That exit polls are manufactured, have a weak methodology, are influenced by those who pay for them, are run by politically biased persons etc is well documented and well known. But this time round it's not the facts but the conspiracy theories that are playing havoc with voters' minds. Foremost of these being circulated by intelligent, well informed persons is that the exit polls have been rigged by the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cover up for the hacking or replacement of EVMs: that the predictions will find expression in the final count on May 23, when results are changed to give a sweeping mandate to the BJP.

The fear is feeding into a helpless desperation. A belief force-fed by the conspiracy theorists, that is already turning into the expressed “vote does not matter” reaction. A belief that is also being fed by political leaders like Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee, the latter having urged the people to keep full vigil on EVMs. Any number of messages from voters are circulating on the social media, adding to the fear and distrust even as these urge civil society to guard the strongrooms where EVMs are stored.

Regardless of the results, the Opposition will need to take concerted action and create an atmosphere where trust in Indian elections is revived. If this requires EVMs to be scrapped for the good old paper ballot so be it - though significantly many of the political leaders questioning the electronic machines have vehemently opposed the ‘back to paper’ suggestion. The political parties must take concerted action to ensure that effective changes are made in the Election Commission to revive trust through T.N.Seshan-like officers, and the EVM controversy is put to rest one way or the other.

A polity where the voter does not trust the outcome of their vote, creates not just divisiveness but fractures the very basis of democracy. To give an example: unrest and violence took over Jammu and Kashmir for long years after the central government intervened and set aside the peoples' mandate by removing the Farooq Abdullah government and installing the puppet regime of G.M.Shah in Srinagar. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were lost to the Congress for years, the latter even now, after the top brass dismissed popularly elected governments in the two states. Now, with these conspiracy theories individual voters are feeling threatened, questioning the worth of their vote, and living in virtual fear of their verdict being manufactured. It does not need rocket science to predict the mayhem this could lead India into.

Regardless of who wins or loses, this insiduous whittling away of faith in India’s democracy and democratic institutions needs to be stopped and people's confidence and trust revived. It is ironical that those who have been attacking India’s unity and her people, are getting full help in this exercise by those who claim to be standing for rights and justice.

This struggle will become irrelevant if the voter stops believing in his or her own vote. This is the real conspiracy that we are all becoming victims of.