THE world’s biggest polling exercise, the Indian general election of 2019, has come under the scanner. Ever since the results were declared on May 23, several individuals and organisations, not related to one another, have pointed out glaring discrepancies in the electoral process after analysing the data put out by the Election Commission (E.C.) of India. On May 22, the opposition, comprising more than 20 political parties, approached the E.C. and requested it to count the VVPAT (voter verified paper audit trail) slips from five randomly selected polling booths as mandated before commencing the counting of votes, in order to allay fears that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) had been tampered with. They also requested the E.C. to tally the VVPAT figures with the EVMs in the entire Assembly segment if a discrepancy was detected in a polling booth. The reason for these requests was the erosion of trust in the EVMs a large section of the electorate had voiced in the run-up to the election.
Video clips of trucks transporting EVMs without security and the E.C.’s unsatisfactory responses to the controversy compelled the political parties to raise the matter. But the E.C. turned down their request to look into the complaints. After the results emerged, the opposition by and large fell silent on the issue.
A Congress leader told Frontline on condition of anonymity : “There is a feeling that there has been wrondoing on a mass scale. Many of our workers are talking about it. But if we say anything now we will look like khisiyani billi khamba noche [the piqued cat scratching the pillar]. However, if someone brings any evidence to us, we will take it up.”
The E.C. was criticised for ignoring repeated violations of the model code of conduct by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In one of his first campaign speeches, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked the Balakot air strikes and the Pulwama martyrs while appealing to first-time voters. Despite filing complaints of code of conduct violations, the E.C. cleared the speech and said that the Prime Minister had not violated its advisory on the invocation of the armed forces in election campaigns. “Had the system worked impartially, he would have been disqualified then and there,” said a citizen, who did not wish to be named. From there on, Modi went on to get five more clearances from the E.C. for his statements made in Varanasi, Patan in Gujarat, Nanded and Wardha in Maharashtra and in the border town of Barmer in Rajasthan, where he again invoked the armed forces and said that nuclear arsenal was not kept by India for use during Diwali.
Elections can be termed successful only when their processes and systems have the trust of the people. For this reason, it is imperative that the E.C. looks into issues raised by sections of the public and addresses them adequately.
Around 20,600 VVPATs were counted in more than 4,000 Assembly segments on May 23. According to news reports, the VVPAT counting went on until as late as the evening of May 26. The E.C. did not receive a final tally of VVPAT slips along with the EVMs. But on May 25, at 12.30 p.m., the three Election Commissioners—Sunil Arora, Ashok Lavasa and Sushil Chandra—met President Ram Nath Kovind to present the list of newly elected Members of Parliament. On May 26, some news reports even quoted E.C. officials as saying that there were no discrepancies between the VVPAT and EVM figures, even as the VVPAT counting was going on. By declaring the results to the President and announcing that there were no discrepancies before the counting of the VVPATs was complete, the E.C. violated its own rules, a former diplomat pointed out to Frontline .
Five days after the results were declared, the website Newsclick published an investigation revealing that thousands of phantom votes might have been cast in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, specifically in the Patna Sahib, Jehanabad and Begusarai seats. In some constituencies, thousands of votes were recorded to have been counted in excess of the total votes cast, and in a few cases the votes counted were substantially fewer than the votes cast, according to Newsclick. In Jehanabad, the votes polled were in excess of the votes counted by 23,079 votes. The victory margin for Chandeshwar Prasad of the Janata Dal (United), the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ally, over his rival, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Surendra Prasad Yadav, was only 1,751 votes. Had the unaccounted votes been counted, the results might have been reversed.
In Patna Sahib, where the BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad defeated the Congress’ Shatrughan Sinha, it was the same story. An excess of 61,978 votes were counted. In Begusarai, where the former Jawaharlal Nehru University student Kanhaiya Kumar was a popular contender against the BJP’s Giriraj Singh and the RJD’s Tanveer Hassan, 15,769 extra votes were counted.
D. Raja, Communist Party of India leader, told Frontline that his party was receiving information about discrepancies in the figures of votes counted and polled from various constituencies spread across the country. “These raise several questions and the E.C. should address them with an open mind to restore the faith of the people in the election process,” he said.
Three former Chief Election Commissioners, S.Y. Quraishi (2010-12), H.S. Brahma (2015) and N. Gopalaswamy (2006-09), reportedly expressed concern and said that the E.C. needed to reconcile the numbers. The E.C. described the fears around phantom votes as invalid as “the provisional voter turnout data reported on E.C. website is only the tentative number of voters and not the final nos, therefore, it is incorrect inference to find ghost voters when there are none”.
The Commission said that two categories of votes were counted—those polled in EVMs and those collected through postal ballots from service voters and personnel deployed for election duty outside their constituencies. In previous elections, according to the E.C., it used to take months to collect authenticated election data from all the returning officers. In the 2014 general election, it took two to three months after the declaration of results to collect and collate such data.
Ravi Nair analysed the data with the E.C. to show that the total unaccounted votes stood at a massive 54.65 lakh votes on May 23. He insisted that such a vast difference could not be dismissed through disclaimers about “provisional numbers” as the winner of the election, the BJP, was announced on the basis of the provisional numbers.
The Quint website’s analysis of the E.C. data also suggested EVM vote count mismatch in more than 373 seats that went to the polls in the first four phases of the election. In over 220 constituencies, extra votes were counted, while in the rest, there were deficits in the total number of votes polled and counted.
“In the Kancheepuram Lok Sabha seat in Tamil Nadu, the E.C. data say 12,14,086 EVM votes were polled, and 12,32,417 EVM votes counted—a surplus of 18,331 EVM votes. Why? No answer from the E.C. In the Dharmapuri Lok Sabha seat in Tamil Nadu, the E.C. data say 11,94,440 EVM votes were polled, and 12,12,311 EVM votes counted—a surplus 17,871 EVM votes. Why? No answer from the E.C. In the Sriperumbudur Lok Sabha seat in Tamil Nadu, the E.C. data say 13,88,666 EVM votes were polled and 14,03,178 EVM votes counted. A surplus of 14,512 EVM votes. Why? No answer from the E.C. In the Mathura Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh, the E.C. data say 10,88,206 EVM votes were polled and 10,98,112 EVM votes counted. A surplus of 9,906 EVM votes. Why? No answer from the E.C. These are four of the highest surpluses in the data,” according to the story. Interestingly, the ticker reflecting the final vote count of the first four phases on the E.C.’s official website disappeared after The Quint contacted the E.C. office for a comment on the discrepancies.
Frontline ’s request to the E.C. for a comment on the discrepancies went unanswered. The discrepancies have revived the debate on the viability of EVMs. Most developed countries, including the United States and France, do not use EVMs. Germany banned the use of EVMs and termed them unconstitutional in 2009 through a court order. But any question raised around making the process of voting through EVMs in India more transparent or reverting to the use of ballot papers, like in these countries, is shot down as being regressive. Earlier, when supporters of political parties captured booths or burnt ballot boxes, it used to happen in plain sight and everybody knew who was trying to manipulate the election process. But in the case of EVMs, any manipulation will go undetected as long as the E.C. does not make the software technology used in the machines transparent.
Contrary to the perception built around EVMs, there is nothing scientific in putting blind trust in their credibility when citizens do not even know what software is used. Besides, machines are fallible, computers are hackable and people are capable of being dishonest. Given the stakes involved, the E.C. should do much more to restore people’s trust in elections.