Barely 24 hours after he praised the Election Commission for its “perfect conduct” of the elections over the years, former President Pranab Mukherjee Tuesday joined the controversy over the movement of EVMs saying he was “concerned at reports” of “alleged tampering of voters’ verdict.” And that the “onus of ensuring institutional integrity” lies with the EC which should “put all speculation to rest.”
Mukherjee joined the EVM debate as 22 Opposition parties drew the EC’s attention to reports of EVM movements and demanded verification of VVPAT slips before counting of votes — not after the last round of counting. So far, complaints regarding EVMs have followed a pattern — electoral setback prompts questioning of EVMs although the Congress was critical of EVMs even after it won Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan Assembly elections last year.
Incidentally, it was BJP patriarch L K Advani who first raised the issue of “dependability and fairness” of the voting machines way back in January 2010, eight months after his party was defeated in the Lok Sabha elections. He was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2009.
“We should revert to ballot papers unless the Election Commission is able to ensure that Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are foolproof and every possibility of their malfunctioning is taken care of,” Advani had told The Indian Express in July 2009, a month after the defeat.
He even wrote the foreword in a book on EVMs — “Democracy at Risk! Can we trust our Electronic Voting Machines?” — published in 2010 by G V L Narasimha Rao, now a BJP spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP. In his book, Rao said that distrust among political leaders of EVMs was so high most losers wonder if they had been unfairly defeated in polls.
Ironically, today it was the same Rao who struck a different tune. “Opposition parties are desperately seeking alibi for their impending massive defeat and their sudden mistrust is unsurprising and unimaginary,” he said, in an apparent reference to exit polls predicting a return of the NDA.
Cut to March 2017. After her party’s massive defeat in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, BSP supremo Mayawati accused the BJP of tampering with EVMs and demanded fresh polls with ballot papers. SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, then her opponent, echoed her demand that the Government investigate her charge.
In a letter to then Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi, BSP general secretary Satish Chandra Misra wrote that “grave manipulations have been done in the voting machines by experts of technology and software field hired by BJP in such a manner that particular number of votes, as desired by BJP, will get automatically transferred to BJP candidates in every constituency, even though they have actually been polled in favour of BSP or other political parties”.
As for the Congress, it was after a string of defeats, in March 2018, that it demanded the re-introduction of paper ballots to “ensure the credibility of the electoral process.” Indeed, the AICC plenary session passed a resolution saying “there are apprehensions among the political parties and the people over the misuse of EVMs to manipulate the outcome contrary to the popular verdict…to ensure the credibility of the electoral process, the Election Commission should revert to the old practice of paper ballot as major democracies have done.”
There was an echo of this in Mukherjee’s statement today: “People’s mandate is sacrosanct and has to be above any iota of reasonable doubt. A firm believer in our institutions, it is my considered opinion that it is the ‘workmen’ who decide how the institutional ‘tools’ perform. The onus of ensuring institutional integrity in this case lies with the Election Commission of India. They must do so and put all speculations to rest.”
On Monday, speaking at the release of a book by NDTV’s Sonia Singh, Mukherjee had said: “If we want to strengthen institutions, we have to keep in mind that institutions are serving well in this country, and if democracy has succeeded, it’s largely due to the perfect conduct of elections by all Election Commissioners starting from Sukumar Sen to the present Election Commissioners. All are appointed by the executive and they are doing their job well. You can’t criticise them. It was perfect conduct of the elections.”
In a tweet, former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi said: “Why is EC not clarifying what the facts are? Speed is extremely important.” Quraishi, who was CEC when Advani raised the doubts in 2010, had said then that “poll panel was absolutely satisfied that EVMs couldn’t be manipulated.”
While the Supreme Court had in October 2013 asked the EC to instal paper trials in all EVMs, the poll panel started using VVPAT machines in all elections since June 2017. In Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh later that year, the EC introduced the concept of counting of VVPAT paper slips at one polling station, randomly selected, in each Assembly constituency. Earlier this year, the Opposition parties began demanding that at least 50 per cent of the paper trials in each Assembly constituency be tallied with the EVM results for the Lok Sabha elections.
They approached the EC first and then took the matter to the Supreme Court. After hearing the parties and the EC, the Supreme Court on April 8 rejected the Opposition plea but directed the EC to increase the number of EVMs that will be subject to random verification using VVPAT from one per assembly segment to five. The Opposition filed then filed a review petition but it was dismissed.