On Monday, two days before the counting of votes begins for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and a day after the exit polls, 22 Opposition parties submitted a memorandum before the Election Commission of India, requesting the poll panel to verify Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips of randomly identified polling stations before initiating the counting. The parties raised the demand of tallying VVPAT slips with EVM figures in an entire Assembly constituency in case a discrepancy surfaced in any of its polling booths.
Some of the signatories of the memorandum are Rajasthan chief minister and senior Congress leader Ashok Gehlot, Communist Party of India (Marxist) national general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Telugu Desam Party chief and Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Satish Chandra Mishra. The list also features the signature of Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi chief minister and national convener of the Aam Aadmi Party.
However, before the Opposition came together for the meeting and social media was flooded with photographs of EVMs lying unattended at shops and being transported in trucks, AAP volunteer Savita Anand shared an unverified news clip on the subject on Twitter. Twitter India has withheld the tweet from the handle @savita_aap in response to a legal demand.
The video showed an anchor from a network called TNN accusing the BJP of switching EVMs in 200 Lok Sabha seats. The anchor claimed that "government sources" had confirmed this news.
In her tweet, Anand described the video as an exposÃ© by the international press on how the prime minister had won an election he had really lost by changing EVMs. When Firstpost reached out to Anand and asked her about the source of the video and whether AAP had accessed it, she said: "Since @PMOIndia hasn't yet given out the source of his 'Raw Wisdom' to conduct airstrikes under cloud cover... we, the citizens, too, are now following his footsteps of acquiring our own raw wisdoms from various sources (sic)."
AAP's official spokespersons told Firstpost they had no knowledge about the video Anand had shared.
"I don't have an idea about this particular video, but the Election Commission should restore the confidence of the electorate because videos and photos of EVMs being transported are causing anxiety among voters," said party leader Rajendra Pal Gautam, who is the minister for social welfare, SC/ST, gurdwara elections and water in the Delhi government and the registrar of cooperative societies.
Anand is part of Gautam's social media team for AAP. Party sources confirmed that no official AAP spokesperson or minister had shared the clip the party volunteer had posted on Twitter.
Rakesh Sinha, who advises AAP on Election Commission-related issues, said he was not aware of the video but asserted that the Election Commission should do whatever possible to convincingly prove that EVMs cannot be manipulated.
Rishiraj Kumar, a lawyer with AAP, also had no clue about the TNN clip. He said AAP had first raised doubts about EVM malpractices during the Punjab Assembly elections in 2017, and that the party has credible sources to prove any doubts it raises. "What are the Election Commission's guidelines on a possible mismatch between the EVM votes and VVPAT slips?" he said, questioning the lack of transparency and clarification from the election machinery.
In 2017, AAP's Saurabh Bharadwaj had given a 'live demo' of tampering with an EVM in the Delhi Assembly, and the debate on possible EVM hacks has been around ever since, surfacing even more prominently around the time of any election results. Sharing unverified news is the last thing the Opposition needs while it is questioning the lack of transparency in the functioning of the world's largest electoral mechanism.
The Opposition's speculations around EVMs are bifurcated and lack clarity. Those casting doubts over lack of transparency in the election mechanism themselves need a transparent, informed critique that they can substantiate with ample evidence in the court of law. Sharing random videos and photographs on social media are just the opposite of what these parties need now.
Meanwhile, the vacation bench of the Supreme Court dismissed a petition seeking 100 percent verification of VVPAT slips.
"The Chief Justice of India had dealt with this matter. Why are you taking a chance before a two-judge vacation bench?" Justice Arun Mishra asked at the hearing on Monday. "We cannot override the CJI's order... This is nonsense. The petition is taken on board. Dismissed."
The petition, filed by a collective of technocrats known as Tech4All, claimed that EVMs are unreliable and vulnerable to tampering. The plea had sought to have EVMs replaced with Optical Ballot Scan machines and subjecting all EVMs to VVPAT verification this election.
In response to the speculation on EVMs being left unattended, the Election Commission on Monday issued a statement saying "polled EVMs are absolutely safe in strongrooms".
"The aspersions in clips being used in media merely pertain to the storage or movement of reserve unused EVMs. However, any case of lapse, even in the handling of reserve EVMs, is thoroughly investigated, and disciplinary action is taken against the officers responsible. An EVM Control Room no. 011-23052123 will also be functioning at the Nirvachan Sadan to handle any EVM-related complaints till the completion of counting. This will become operative from 11 am on 22 May," the poll panel said.
On its part, the Election Commission has proactively addressed speculation around videos doing the rounds on social media. It has clarified that each strongroom where the voting machines are stored is guarded round the clock by personnel from the Central Armed Police Forces. It also pointed out that candidates, or their designated agents, are present at the strongroom 24X7. An unverified allegation undermines an institution that engages multiple bodies and lakhs of government officials to carry out its duties.
One mistake that AAP makes repeatedly is reacting strongly to speculation without proof. Now, a lesser-known party volunteer has shared a mysterious video and has refused to state its source. Such incidents damage the gravity of the Opposition far more than the institutions and parties they are attempting to question.