After EVM Controversy, Poll Panel’s Political Comment Uncalled For

The EVM controversy refuses to die down. As soon as one settles, another crops up somewhere else. After the UP election, there was a marathon five-hour debate in Rajya Sabha on electoral reforms, where half the time was taken up by the EVM. The provocation was BSP supremo Mayawati's allegation that EVM manipulation led to her massive defeat.

At the same time, the Aam Aadmi Party made a lot of noise about the conduct of EVMs in Punjab. It, too, attributed its defeat to EVMs. The Election Commission issued a detailed statement about the technical and administrative security of the machines and reassured the concerned parties and the nation about the fool-proof working of Indian EVMs.

Also Read: Come, Rig Our EVMs: EC Throws Challenge After AAP Raises Doubts

Polling officials colleting Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) during 2014 Lok Sabha elections. (Photo: PTI)

Casting Doubt on EVMs

In Rajya Sabha, member after member commented on the credibility of EVMs, and even those who were critical of the machines were in agreement that with the introduction of VVPAT (Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail), everything would be alright. These should be introduced without delay, as already directed by the Supreme Court in 2013.

While the problem seemed to have subsided after the debate, another controversial incident gained traction across social and other media. This incident happened in Madhya Pradesh where an EVM-VVPAT was being demonstrated in front of stakeholders like the political parties and the media.

Also Read: Alleging EVM Tampering, Kejriwal Wants Delhi MCD Polls Postponed

A VVPAT machine continued printing votes in favour of the BJP, irrespective of which button was pressed. The consequential hue and cry was natural, as any doubt on the EVM is a matter of serious concern.

Instruction Flouted During Demo

Since the EC is not present on social media, I bear the brunt of most of the attacks or queries about such events. I passed on one such message to the three Election Commissioners late one night. To my pleasant surprise, though it was past midnight, CEC Nasim Zaidi responded within minutes.

He informed me that the commission was enquiring into the incident and would meet a delegation from the Congress the next morning. I passed on this message via Twitter. It must have come a reassurance to some of those who read the message.

The enquiry apparently revealed that it was an EVM-VVPAT demonstration. For such demos, the EC’s instructions are that only dummy names of the parties and candidates be used and not the names of real parties. Flouting these instructions was a serious matter that called for action against the officers concerned.

Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi. (Photo: ECI.in)

EC’s Credibility at Stake

What compounded the problem was the casualness with which the CEO of the state made light-hearted banter that the media should not highlight this incident or else they will be made to sit in the police station. Those who saw the incident could see that it was at best a crude joke, though in print medium it did sound like a threat. I am sure the officer would have received an appropriate reprimand for loose talk.

I think this is a fit case that calls for a full-fledged press conference by the full commission to explain exactly what happened. Any delay would be detrimental to the credibility of the system. For the EC, to be silent is not the right option, however media-shy it may be. Prompt explanation and reassurance is imperative.

Asserting Neutrality

While the MP debate was still raging, the EC’s reply to AAP generated another controversy. In a detailed reply to the complaint of the party about Punjab, the EC explained in detail the safety mechanism and procedures that are – and were – followed. The reply included a sentence, which understandably raised the hackles of AAP. The offending sentence was, “it is for your party to introspect as to why your party could not perform as per your expectation, and it is unfair on the part of your party to attribute unsatisfactory poll performance of your party to the alleged tamperability of the EVMs.”

To my mind, the first part of the sentence was very unlike the EC. The commission always desists from making any statement that could even remotely be construed as political. We never tire of asserting to our 11 million polling staff that even the perception of neutrality is totally non-negotiable. This half-sentence was absolutely uncalled for.

The second half of the sentence was, however, legitimate. I am surprised how this sentence could pass muster of the legal cell – which enjoys the highest reputation for its command over the language and its appropriate use – in the first place. This slip not only invited instant attack by the party concerned but also attracted adverse media comments. One editorial commented:

The Election Commission’s reputation of neutrality and independence is hard won....here, EC appeared not to live up to its own stellar record...it seemed to lose some of its poise.

I think it will be in the fitness of things for the commission to withdraw/expunge this sentence and apologise for this (hopefully) inadvertent slip. Such a magnanimous act would only enhance the prestige of the EC.

Also Read: Here’s Proof Why Faulty EVMs Might Not Be Behind BJP’s Big UP Win

(The writer is a former Chief Election Commissioner and the author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder – the Making of the Great Indian Election’. He can be reached @DrSYQuraishi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Join us on WhatsApp. Type “JOIN” and send to 9910181818.