Politics

The 2019 Elections Came Down to Money, EVM Machines and the Media

The fourth 'M' – the model code of conduct – was reduced to waste paper.

Within a week of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections coming to a close, the Election Commission (EC) constituted working groups headed by senior functionaries to review specific areas of concern. The EC need not have bothered with this post mortem; it is clear to everyone that this election was dominated by three ‘M’s: money, machine and media. The fourth ‘M’ – the model code of conduct – was reduced to waste paper.

Money

The total expenditure on this election is estimated to have been a staggering Rs 60,000 crore, making it the most expensive in the world and more than double the 2014 polls, according to the Centre for Media Studies (CMS). As per the report, out of this the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party spent close to Rs 27,000 crore – or 45%.

CMS chairperson N. Bhaskara Rao, said, “The Mother of all corruption lies in the spiralling election expenditure. If we are not able to address this, we can’t check corruption in India.” Sadly, the major source of this money is corporate, that too dubious.

This has happened because of the introduction of electoral bonds – a retrograde measure that radically alters the transparency of electoral funding. By obscuring the identity of a bond’s purchaser and recipient from everyone but the State Bank of India, there is an unfair advantage to the party in power at the Centre, undermining the EC’s oversight role and depriving voters of their right to determine if the ruling party is unduly favouring its donors.

In the absence of transparency, one does not know how much money went into the BJP’s coffers through this devious route.

Recently, Gfiles Magazine made a disturbing revelation:

“The resources by BJP were collected mainly through NRIs, a big base of the BJP and top industrialists. BJP and Modi do not believe in conventional fund collection. Sources disclosed a whopping collection done mainly by three highly profitable fund holders-the chemical and liquor lobby, the tobacco lobby and the arms supplier lobby. All powerful lobby facilitators were in touch with BJP party president Amit Shah… Guess how much has been collected? One source close to the arms lobby put the figure at around two billion dollars…”

This has not been repudiated.

Machine

The electronic voting machine (EVM) is a device with no transparency. Its integrity has been challenged since its introduction in 1999. The controversy flared up in 2009, soon after the United Progressive Alliance’s repeat victories in parliamentary elections.

The most well-articulated challenges to the EVM’s integrity them came from those aligned with the BJP – G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, presently Rajya Sabha MP, maverick Subramanian Swamy, and the party’s founder and senior most leader L.K. Advani. But with the BJP’s victory in 2014, these EVM haters suddenly turned EVM worshippers.

Even the basic premise that the micro-controllers used in EVMs are ‘one-time programmable’ is under serious challenge. They contain three kinds of memories, including ‘flash’ memory (which can be electrically erased and reprogrammed), which allegedly makes it open to data manipulation.

Voting on EVMs also does not adhere to democratic principles in the same way as the paper ballot system, which can be examined while casting the vote and verified during counting. In the interest of democracy, these machines should have been abandoned long ago. But the EC has been holding on.

On October 8, 2013, the Supreme Court directed the EC to have a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) system attached to all EVMs. The main purpose of this was to bring some semblance of examinability and verifiability in the casting and counting of votes. Therefore, without counting VVPAT slips in a significant percentage of polling stations, this purpose will remain unrealised.

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In defiance of this basic principle, through its letter dated February 13, 2018, the EC directed state chief electoral officers to mandatorily verify VVPAT paper slips in only one randomly selected polling station (a sample size of just 0.5%) in each assembly constituency. This defeated the objective of installing VVPATs in all EVMs.

Representations to the EC by the Forum for Electoral Integrity and Constitutional Conduct Group of retired civil servants seeking a sample size of at least 25% went in vain. This was despite our meetings and engagement with chief election commissioner O.P. Rawat until he retired on December 1, 2018.

We were supported by an expert opinion on statistical sample size – S.K. Nath, former director general, Central Statistical Organisation – and an international consultant who had suggested a sample of up to 30%. We found out later that this move towards EVM integrity was being sabotaged from within the EC itself.

The matter then went before the Supreme Court in a writ petition in which I was the lead petitioner. The court admitted our petition in early January 2019, and issued a notice to the EC. It was at this stage that 21 political parties entered the fray by filing a separate PIL seeking 50% VVPAT slip count.

The deputy election commissioner (DEC) in charge of EVMs filed a counter-affidavit making false claims. He even used the absurd report issued by a three-member Indian Statistical Institute committee, which took elections in the entire country as a single event and said that tallying votes in 479 random booths (0.05%) was enough to verify the fairness of the elections.

On verification it transpired that this “committee” was not one set up by ISI Kolkata and the report submitted in the Supreme Court was not official. It was a private one done carried out by the director, ISI Delhi at the request of the DEC to resolve the issue of VVPAT sample size, associating two other ‘experts’ on an individual basis. Our expert (Nath) was not consulted.

The Supreme Court, though, had no time for democratic principles, public confidence and electoral integrity. So, in an abrupt judgment dated April 8, 2019, the court granted a sample size of five booths per assembly constituency – increasing it from a microscopic 0.5% to a minuscule 2%. We had asked for a reasonable 30% and political parties wanted 50%.

We, and the political parties, then filed a review petition in the Supreme Court with evidence of EVM-VVPAT fraud and malfunctioning in the first three phases of the 2019 elections. We also brought up the misrepresented report submitted by the DEC. The court summarily dismissed the review petition on May 7, 2019.

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In utter desperation, the 21 political parties pleaded with the EC to at least manually count the measly 2% VVPAT slips upfront and do the verification before the main electronic count so that the integrity of the electoral process could be tested. But the EC rejected this demand and pushed the “verification” to  well past midnight.

On May 23, not a single VVPAT slip was counted and verified before the entire electronic count was done, results announced and celebrations finished. Now there are reports of a possible mismatch or excess counting.

Tallying a reasonable number of VVPAT slips with the electronic count is a way to convince people of the integrity and fairness of the elections. Even without the demand, the EC should have done this suo motu as soon as doubts surfaced about EVMs.

Media

On the media front, the BJP and Narendra Modi exercised a near-complete hegemony. The mainstream media behaved like mercenaries without once questioning the integrity or fairness of the electoral process.

As is known, the BJP spent a fortune during this election. There was not a single street, circle, road, petrol station, highway, social media site or newspaper not flooded with the pictures of the prime minister and his election slogans. All TV channels that are members of Indian Broadcasting Federation were issued release orders by the BJP.

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The Centre’s track record during the last five years and its serious acts of commission and omission are well known. Yet, the mainstream media’s role in all this was at best condescending, not critical. They not only failed the people in the critical task of informing them of this collapse, some even rationalised and justified these excesses and failures.

People were also not informed that a corrosive combination of the three ‘M’s could hijack democracy. Now that this has happened, are we stuck with an albatross around our neck? The jury is still out.

M.G. Devasahayam is a former IAS officer hailing from Kanyakumari district.