Why are EVMs so successful in Indian democracy?
New Delhi, October 15: The year is 1990. In India, the Janata Dal coalition government led by VP Singh was in power. By-elections had to be held in Haryana's Meham at the end of February. Because Devi Lal has moved to Delhi as the Deputy Prime Minister of the country. In his place, his son Omprakash Chautala became the chief minister of the state, but he had to win from one of the centers. Chautala stood as Meham's candidate.
The February 28 by-election in Meham is one of the most tainted chapters in the history of Indian democracy.
The ordinary people of Meham still shudder when they think of the manner in which the polling booths were seized and ballots cast freely, from bombings, murders to police firing in that township of Haryana, just 125 kilometers away from the Parliament House in Delhi.
Senior journalists in India say that Meham and the English language 'Mayhem' (extreme violence and chaos) became synonymous that day.
Earlier in the afternoon, the country's Chief Election Commissioner RVS Peri Shastri said that what is happening in Meham in the name of voting is a farce. By then, at least 13 people had died in police firing while protesting against vote rigging. Hooligans stamped thousands of ballots and stuffed the boxes.
All parties, including Chautala's party Janata Dal, demanded the annulment of Meham's election. That was also the beginning of the rift between Prime Minister VP Singh and his deputy Devi Lal, though that is a different topic.
There was only one positive aspect of this chapter – the infamous Meham by-election triggered the idea that Electronic Voting Machines or EVMs are essential for fair elections in Indian democracy.
Former Election Commissioner of India SY Qureshi told Bangla Tribune, "The first piloting of EVMs in the country started in 1982, in Kerala. But then nobody showed much interest in the matter and the work did not progress much. But after the 90s, the Election Commission again wavered and from 1998, EVMs were widely used in different parts of the country."
He also said that even if voting is done with EVM, it cannot solve the law and order problem, but it should be understood. There was widespread hooliganism in Meham with the help of the administration and the police, which would have happened even if voting was done with EVMs.
But then how did the electronic voting machine become so successful in India?
According to SY Qureshi, there are several special reasons for this. The first reason is that EVMs are programmed in such a way that they cannot cast more than a certain number of votes per minute. Let's say it's five a minute. Now, if the goons of a political party go to a booth and there are 1500 votes in total, they would have to occupy that booth for five whole hours to cast all the fake votes—which is almost impossible.
However, if voting is done with paper ballots in the same booth, then within five to ten minutes the thugs will be able to leave with their chests puffed out. As a result, EVMs in India have indirectly made vote fraud much more difficult.
Secondly, the counting time of votes has come down dramatically thanks to EVMs. Even in the 1990s (when there were completely paper ballots) it took three to four days to get the full results of general elections in India. And since the 2004 general election, the results have been clear by noon or afternoon on counting day—mainly because the EVMs take almost no time to count.
Apart from that, there is less controversy during counting as no votes are discarded in EVMs. There is a lot of bickering and bickering between the agents of different parties during the counting process whether the voter has stamped the paper ballot in the right place, whether the seal given by him has gone beyond the border. But SY Qureshi is of the opinion that the whole process of vote counting has become very smooth as it is not in the EVM.
American-based think tank 'Brookings' has done a detailed study on the impact of EVMs on Indian democracy. In 2017, Brookings researchers Shamika Ravi, Shishir Debnath and Mudit Kapur made it clear in their report—
a. After the introduction of EVMs, electoral fraud has reduced significantly in India
b. The weak, vulnerable and backward sections of the society are empowered as they are able to vote themselves.
c. The overall electoral environment of the country has become much more competitive.
Shamika Ravi, one of the authors of the report, told Bangla Tribune, "In fact, in a huge country like India, with more than 90 crore registered voters and a complex multi-party political system, we feel that there is no way to conduct elections without EVMs in today's era."
In fact, the elections in India are not that questionable despite the bitter rivalry between the political parties. Shamika Ravi believes that in most cases, the losing party accepts the results and EVMs play a big role in this.
But it is also true that various parties in India have alleged at various times that EVMs can be 'manipulated'—that is, can the results of these machines be manipulated?
Former Election Commissioner SY Qureshi responded by saying, "All the major parties in India - BJP, Congress, Trinamool, CPM have all opposed EVMs at some point. Again, there are many instances where they have digested that objection by winning the EVM vote massively. So those who object to EVMs in India are not doing it very seriously - maybe for political reasons sometimes they say that."
Since 2013, the system of adding VVPAT or paper trail to EVMs has also been added in India. A VVPAT paper can be checked to see if the voter actually entered the machine where he voted. The Supreme Court has now mandated that the results of the EVMs be matched with the VVPATs of at least five booths in every center in the country—but so far no 'mismatch' has been found in a single case.
Some experts feel that not just five booths—all the booths can be matched with a VVPAT or paper trail to dispel even the slightest doubt in the minds of those in India about EVMs. They say, in that case, maybe one-and-a-half hours extra time will be needed in the counting of votes, but what is the harm in that?
In fact, in less than a century, there is no doubt that Electronic Voting Machines or EVMs have become an integral part of Indian democracy. Election process experts and political party leaders all know that it is somewhat impossible for India to go back to paper ballots now.