Why you can trust India's electronic voting and ignore the naysayers


Why you can trust Indias electronic voting and ignore the naysayers

The success of the system lies in continuity and the fact that democratic people remain free about their choices

By Allan Jacob

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Published: Tue 29 Jan 2019, 6:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 29 Jan 2019, 8:10 PM

It's open season against democracy and the institutions the system holds dear. Free and fair elections are under fire, we are told. A crisis is brewing, some media and intellectuals drone on. Should we take these claims seriously? Certainly not. The rightists and fascists in democracies are rising and are hell bent on rigging the balloting system, they continue.
Some take it a notch higher and say electronic voting machines (EVMs) are being tampered by governments to keep the opposition out of power. Others in the West conclude that the Russians with their inexplicable dark powers are influencing voters online. It's laughable. Why? Because they are taking thinking voters for fools.
If you've read these allegations and outcry in some publication or online, I say, don't fall for this idiocy, it's hogwash. Discrepancies and technical glitches could arise and democracies can be at a disadvantage as they permit dissent. But, overall, the electoral process delivers just verdicts in functioning democracies in the West and Asia. Whether we like it or not, the United States remains a beacon of democracy. In fact, it promotes those values as a means to achieving "security, stability, and prosperity for the entire world." That's the stated goal of the US State Department unlike regimes in China and Russia where the communist party does everything to discredit democratic practices and promote one-party rule. An opposition, if one exists, serves as a mere dummy.
Western systems of governance and those in Asia are resilient. The success of the system lies in continuity. In most cases they have survived unscathed despite throwing up strong leaders with despotic tendencies and those with little ability to govern. However, losers will be losers. They will be outraged by the results of elections - naturally. That's because unpredictability is written all over voting patterns. Citizens can change their mind on a whim, overnight, and they are not obliged to explain to the pundits why. Democratic people remain unfettered and free about their choices and they will make their ballots count on voting day. I remember voting in two elections in India, the world's largest democracy and I found the process foolproof. In the first election that I voted in, ballot papers were used. Voting agents verified my ID card, directed me to a booth and I did the rest.
In the second instance, it was electronic, swift and easy. On both occasions, I had made up my mind on the candidate. I believed so-called trends and voted, but was disappointed with the results in both elections. The majority had voted for political combinations that I had voted against. Though discouraged about the prospects of governance, I was confident about the direction Indian democracy was taking. I still am.
So why am I outraged today when questions are being raised about the Indian voting system and the use of electronic voting machines that have come under renewed scrutiny?  Last September, 17 political parties wanted the electronic polling system revert to ballot papers, a demand which the independent Election Commission of India termed 'regressive'.  Later that year, the main opposition Congress party, that was reduced to double figures in federal elections in 2014, made a comeback picking up three states in the Hindi heartland. The calls for ballot paper voting died down.
Just when I thought the issue has been put to rest, a man named Syed Shuja appeared at a hackathon in London via Skype from the US where he is allegedly based. His face was covered and he made the incredulous claim that every Indian election conducted using electronic machines was hacked.
Shuja said he had worked with the Electronic Corporation of India (which manufactures the machines) and added inside information on how they could be hacked military-style. He alleged he had fled to the US after receiving threats to his life. By the time all his claims were proven false, the reputational damage to the Indian electoral system was already done.
Ignorance was bliss as editorials were written and columns wasted asking the Indian government to come clean about the voting process. For the record, electronic machines have been used in three national and 113 state elections in a country where 800 million people are eligible to vote. Apart from glitches in some elections, these 1.6 million machines have been reliable and have considerably reduced voter fraud that marred elections during its socialist past when the country was finding its feet as a parliamentary democracy.
Booth capturing was the allegation that cast a cloud till the nineties. But the election commission under then chief T. N. Seshan put the fear of God into errant Indian politicians. The joke back then was that "politicians fear only God and Seshan". The media went one step further and called him 'Alseshan' (a reference to a breed of dogs by the name Alsatian).
And Seshan cleaned up the process with gusto. His critics called him authoritarian, but to the Indian public all doubts were erased about the fairness of the process. He was feted wherever he went, he was a star. I remember meeting Seshan as student back then and asked him if he felt threatened by the political class who loathed him for his reforms. "What's there to fear when I was only implementing the Model Code of Conduct," he shot back. "When the law, the constitution is on your side, you simply do your job?" he said in his gravelly voice. 'Alseshan' put the bite back into the Indian balloting system by enforcing the model code of conduct.
And to those who have made a habit of sniping at Indian democracy, and to others who lap up such rubbish, this is what I have to say: stop barking up the wrong tree.
- allan@khaleejtimes.com

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