OPINION: Man versus Machine

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) - It is time to reflect on the electoral experience of the past seven decades; only then can a well-designed system of voting be put in place. 

We are familiar with the adge - A bad artisan always quarrels with his tools. This is the situation prevailing in the country's political spectrum. Those politicians who have been defeated in the recent elections in the States, municipalities and panchayats are advancing their reasons for the debacle. The latest in the series is the loss suffered by the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi municipal elections.  

The party's leader, the ebullient Arvind Kejriwal, has blamed the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for the resounding defeat suffered by his party candidates. He has asserted that the outcome is not the verdict of the electorate.

Kejriwal is an IIT engineer. His accusations are weird and do not behove a person who has spent five years of his youth in a scientific environment. The scientific spirit presupposes the primacy of reason and data-based conclusions. Apart from iterating his accusation that the EVMs can be and have been manipulated, he has not been able to substantiate his claim with credible scientific data or evidence.

Further, if the EVMs can be manipulated so that the votes cast are transferred to the account of the BJP candidates, then his phenomenal victory two years back in the Assembly elections in Delhi can also be attributed to manipulation of votes.

It is ironical that immediately before his victory, the Delhi government was run by his arch-rival, at that time, the Congress party. And his party’s defeat in the latest municipal elections has happened when he is at the helm of the Delhi administration with a massive legislative mandate. Nothing could be more ridiculous than such empty accusations. It only projects Kejriwal and his followers in bad light, verging on political immaturity and childish petulance.

The Election Commission of India is an independent entity which upholds democratic values. The people of the country must have an abiding and unshakeable faith in its functioning. It has admirably displayed its strength and determination to uphold the concept of free and fair elections. It is also legitimate and natural to believe that the State Election Commissions also act in a free and fair atmosphere while holding elections to municipalities and panchayats.

India is different from the banana republics of Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa where an election can be an exercise in fraudulence. True, the EVMs are supplied by the Election Commission of India, which acquires them from two public sector undertakings. Unless manipulation of any kind is proved during the election process, such unfounded allegations should not be made. It will not only cause immense harm to the system and probity of a democratic instution; it will ultimately be detrimental to the democratic polity.

An impartial entity is essential for the conduct of free and fair elections. The manner in which the votes will be cast is a matter of detail best left to the Election Commission. The government must not interfere with its functioning. It is presumed that Delhi's State Election Commission was not under the control of the Central Government so that it would allow the latter to have access to the machines and manipulate them.

The debate over paper ballots and the EVM ballot is not new. The EVM is a machine and as such may not be foolproof. Mechanical glitches there will be.  Alleged malfunctioning is a matter of statistical conjecture. In the event of a breakdown, steps should immediately be taken to fix the fault.

During the days of the paper-ballot system, complaints of stuffing the ballot boxes were fairly common. It would be a retrograde step, to switch over to the earlier method. Whenever any new method is adopted, it is expected to yield distinctly better results. The remedy is worse than the suspected affliction.

It is amazing that those politicians who have had a smooth sailing in previous elections, have also jumped onto the bandwagon of the agitators seeking a paper-ballot regime. These leaders are generally from monolithic regional parties. They do not seem to be sure of repeating their winning scores in future elections to be held in two-three years' time.

There is definitely a fear psychosis inherent in their responses. The latest case is that of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. Defying all hopes and exit polls, the BJP trounced the Samajwadi Party to capture the Vidhan Sabha in Lucknow with an overwhelming two-third majority. The angst of the defeated party was targeted at the EVMs.

So, who manipulated the machines? Was it the game of the state officials, temporarily seconded to the Election Commission of India? If so, it appears strange that in Punjab under the Akali-BJP dispensation, a dark horse, the Congress party romped home, decimating both the AAP and the ruling cohort.

How does this mesh with the allegation of Arvind Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav and possibly, Mamata Banerjee who apparently have faith in the paper-ballot system?  When she was in the Opposition and when EVMs had not been introduced, Miss Banerjee had alleged the stuffing of ballot boxes by the ruling party. Rather conveniently, some political worthies have switched their preferences... from the EVM to the paper-ballot.

To buttress their argument, these leaders refer to countries that have reverted to the previous system. There can be no dispute that this has actually happened. But what appears to have been overlooked is equally relevant and important. The factors that prompted such a reversal in those countries are yet to be analysed and compared with Indian conditions. The quantitative demographic parameters lend no scope for a comparative evaluation. Indeed, the comparison is irrelevant as India, as the largest democratic country, has adopted the electronic system of voting.

The multiplicity of parties, national and regional, with a large contingent of Independent candidates, render a physical paper ballot system rather unfeasible at this juncture of Indian politics. With endemic booth-capturing, stuffing of ballot boxes, snatching of ballot papers, and many other irregularities, a free, fair and transparent election is a huge task.

Despite the constraints, the Election Commission of India has on the whole performed admirably. The allegations of EVM manipulation are motivated and partial.  Arguably, the sinister objective might be to revive the malpractices that once plagued the electoral system.

It is time to reflect on the electoral experience of the past seven decades; only then can a well-designed system of voting be put in place. It would be a hasty and precipitous decision if we re-introduce the paper-ballot system. The country cannot be a prisoner of the whims of defeated politicians. Let us not destroy the great institution called the Election Commission by levelling unsubstantiated allegations.

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  • OPINION Man versus Machine

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