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Ghost in the machine

There was one result never made public in the recent state elections. Bharat is not ready for the electronic voting machine (EVM). While Ind...

Written by Bunker Roy |
March 31, 2004

There was one result never made public in the recent state elections. Bharat is not ready for the electronic voting machine (EVM). While India is aggressively proving to the world how electronically savvy its one billion people are getting and applause is ringing in our ears, making us feel good, it’s amazing how no one — not the politicians who lost, not the voters who supposedly voted, not the voluntary agencies and election watch groups committed to the criminal-free selection of candidates, not the state election commissioners, whose job it was to ensure voting was free and fair — protested.

The push button EVM is the most serious threat to the very essence of the Indian-style democracy we have been used to in 600,000 villages since Independence. But all these watchdogs of democracy have descended into a collective coma, shell-shocked and still wondering what hit them in the state elections. How come they were proved so wrong. What was the factor they did not take into account? The politicians who should have won didn’t lose to the voter; they lost to the machine.

In the impoverished world the rural poor are surviving in, with no right to work, food, shelter, water or employment, by far the most acceptable system for Bharat is the ballot paper and the ballot box. However imperfect, the process of manually casting a vote in a ballot box has taken time getting used to. Statistics will show. as literacy levels have risen, there are less invalid votes being cast today.

The saga and romance of booth capturing, of reaching and collecting ballot boxes from remote corners of the world, of defending the booths from inevitable anti-social elements, of violence, intimidation and the ultimate foolproof system of counting the votes manually — don’t forget this was how George W. Bush finally won in the United States — is now part of the Indian psyche. There is no country in the world like this — to physically count millions of votes, take our time and declare the result with a built-in system that a recount could be demanded at any time.

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So why on earth should we reject or be ashamed of this system and replace it with the impersonal, imperfect and dangerously faulty EVMs? Are we saving time? Trying to show the world how modern we are? Saving money? Which insane group of decision-makers agreed to this idea in Bharat in the first place?

By introducing this machine they have ensured voting will never be fair or free. If the state elections were deeply flawed by EVMs, it will certainly not be impartial in the Lok Sabha election. That is guaranteed.

In thousands of villages, voters who lined up for hours never actually voted. The button was pressed on their behalf by an often not so impartial government servant with his/her own political leanings wanting to take his/her revenge on a government that did not agree to personal demands.

In village after village, millions of illiterate rural men and women, intimidated by the machine, requested the returning officer to push the button. What it amounted to was the aspirations, wishes and expectations of a politically sensitised population being hijacked by a machine. What is worse is that there is no way of confirming if the votes were cast as the voter wished it, and with this infernal machine there is no way of getting a recount.

This is a travesty of the political process we have taken years to understand, accept and, indeed, tolerate. The ballot papers and the ballot boxes have meant life and death to many politicians. They ensure voting is free and fair and no returning officer can violate the secrecy of stamping the ballot paper in privacy. The secrecy is forever lost in the machine. A recount is technically impossible.

It’s time the Election Commission (EC) accepted the growing danger of using the EVM indiscriminately in Bharat. It’s time it learnt from the experience in the state elections and fixed an minimum literacy level in the constituencies where the machine could be selectively introduced. Politicians should be given a choice — whether they would like to be elected through the ballot box or the EVM. Since their future depends on this, it is too important a decision to be taken only by the EC.

Forget what the world has to say. This is not merely a question of scoring brownie points. The political life of a nation is at stake. To trivialise it by leaving it to an imperfect machine invisibly manipulated and abused by ideologically-committed, politically-tainted and less than impartial government servants is tantamount to trashing the whole election process.

No longer can we ensure that the government servant manning the booth is impartial. It’s a total mystery how these middle-level bureaucrats from line departments are given such a sacred task when there is such a vast fabric from civil society to chose from. They could be recruited as “observers” to make sure irregularities are minimised.

Before the Lok Sabha elections and these dangerous EVMs are put into place with potential to do incalculable harm, a public dialogue needs to be initiated by the EC. Get people from different walks of life, who participated in the state elections, to speak their mind, voice their concerns and fears of electronic rigging so easily covered up that no one can be held directly responsible.

With the ballot paper and the ballot box there is evidence available for public scrutiny even after the vote is cast, because manipulation, intrigue, collusion and buying up “returning officers” is taken for granted. The EVM has just made it easier to rig on the spot and all evidence of rigging is wiped out at the press of a button.

The EVM will work if everyone is considered honest, decent and law abiding. But because the political system is so corrupt, the simple, century-old ballot box is our only hope. The few decent, honest and simple politicians left in this country should get together and demand the EVM is banned from their constituencies. That is the only chance of democracy really working in this country.

The writer is director, the Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan

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