IN A letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi four months ago, the Election Commission sought urgent release of funds to procure enough Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines to cover all polling stations ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The EC has sent over 10 reminders to the government on the matter, since June 2014, and the letter to Modi by Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi, on October 25, 2016, was an SOS of sorts. The CEC very rarely writes directly to the PM, with its communication to the government on electoral matters normally limited to Law and Home ministries.
Several parties, including the BSP, Samajwadi Party and Aam Aadmi Party, have raised doubts about tampering of EVMs following the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand results. Before the 2014 general elections, the BJP had talked of EVM tampering on many occasions.
VVPAT machines produce a printout of the vote cast using an EVM, which can be shown to the voter to dispel any doubts. This printout is then deposited in a box and can be used to resolve any dispute regarding the election. In 2013, the Supreme Court had ordered the EC to implement the VVPAT system in a phased manner, and the commission had committed to have it in place by the time of the 2019 general elections.
The EC has been writing to the Law Ministry (its parent ministry) for funds to purchase approximately 16 lakh VVPATs, for which it needs Rs 3,100 crore.
In his letter to Modi, Zaidi wrote, “I’m writing to draw your kind attention to the crisis that may occur during the next General Election to Lok Sabha in 2019, if required numbers of replacement Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and new Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) are not produced in time by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), the two defence PSUs.”
He further wrote, “I would like to bring to your notice that Commission submitted its first proposal to the government of India in Ministry of Law & Justice on 16th June, 2014 for the required budget and sanction for EVMs and VVPATs and has pursued the matter continuously since then.
“There are already two contempt petitions against me and the Commission being heard by Hon’ble Supreme Court for not deploying VVPATs in adequate number. The production of VVPAT is held up for want of sanction of funds. Hence I would request your good self to kindly look into the matter and advise concerned ministries for release of necessary funds & sanctions for VVPAT most urgently.”
The Sunday Express has learnt that on July 20, 2016, the Union Cabinet had at a meeting considered the procurement of VVPATs, but it was decided that the EC should be asked to explore the feasibility of roping in private manufacturers as BEL and ECIL have limited capacity.
The EC later turned down the suggestion citing “sensitivity of the job”. In December 2016, the poll panel recommended two other PSUs, namely Indian Telecom Industry in Bangalore and Central Electronics limited in Ghaziabad, to enhance production capacity.
On January 10, 2017, Zaidi wrote to Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, warning that if orders for VVPATs were not placed by February, manufacturers would not be able to supply the machines by September 2018.
During a recent hearing on the contempt petition against the CEC on the matter, the EC told the Supreme Court that it needed 30 months to procure close to 16 lakh paper trail machines. This means that unless it ropes in more manufacturers, the poll panel would miss the 2019 deadline to equip all polling stations with VVPATs.
Following the results in Uttar Pradesh, BSP chief Mayawati, who was decimated in the elections, sought a repoll with paper ballots. AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal later blamed his party’s loss in Punjab on EVM tampering and asked the EC to tally his party’s EVM votes with the VVPATs installed across 30 seats. The Congress’s losing Uttarakhand CM, Harish Rawat, too has attributed the BJP’s victory to “EVM chamatkar (EVM magic)”.
While the EC has rejected all such allegations and reaffirmed its faith in EVMs, in an interview to NDTV news channel on Friday, Zaidi acknowledged that VVPATs would be a “game changer”, which would “double and treble the voter’s confidence in EVMs”.
The poll panel needs 16,15,066 VVPATs by 2019, when the Lok Sabha elections would be held simultaneously with state elections in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Sikkim, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana. One machine costs Rs 19,650. The poll panel already has about 20,000 units and has placed order for another 67,000 VVPATs, of which half have been delivered.