First the prophesy: it's a matter of time, before clamour to return to the paper ballot system becomes forceful again. An equally strong lobby however, citing multiple reasons – investments already made for 10.35 lakh EVMs, to how ridiculous India would look globally, for marching backwards on the highway of technological progress, etc. – will object to turning the clock back.
After all, it is a decade and half since paper ballots were stopped completely in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections since 2004.
An equally robust group, their pursuit aided by several instances of aspersions being cast over the fairness of the poll process, and an Election Commission – which no longer inspires confidence in its integrity – will keep plugging their case. As a result, a compromise will eventually be arrived at.
By the Next Big Election, No of VVPAT Physical Verification Will Increase
There is near certainty that in the next significant round of polls – parliamentary or assembly – the number of Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) physical verification would be increased sizeably, from five EVMs in each assembly segment of the Lok Sabha seat. Besides, in addition to manpower requirements for counting, further financial resources too would be required for this. But most importantly, counting will not be almost instantaneous as it was since 2004.
This would make the job of television anchors and talking heads on TV tougher, as there would be fewer trends to discuss during the initial period of counting, because no tally can be made public till this is physically verified with the VVPAT. The paper trail votes can be taken up for counting only after the EVM votes have been tallied.
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The ECI has claimed that counting could spill over into several days and nights, as in the pre-EVM era till 1999, although the Commission has created a scare on this matter. With planning and more manpower, the counting process can be made more compact than it is being made out to be.
But on 23 May, when the votes for the 17th Lok Sabha are counted, do not expect a verdict in a jiffy. Rather, this will be a long haul with the final picture becoming clear only in the evening, if not late that night. The suspense will be nerve-wracking, especially if early trends and results point to a 'hung' Parliament, and if margins in a large number of constituencies are very small.
What is a ‘Reasonable Number’ of EVMs Whose VVPATs Will be Physically Tallied?
The plea of 21 Opposition parties in the apex court for VVPAT physical verification in “at least 50 percent of the EVMs to be used in the forthcoming elections” has been turned down by the bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi.
But it has accepted that if the “number of machines which are subjected to verification of paper trail can be increased to a reasonable number, it would lead to greater satisfaction among not only the political parties, but the entire electorate of the country.” Additionally, the court stated that “not only political parties, but the poor and the illiterate should be satisfied.”
Because the court used a subjective phrase like ‘reasonable number’ of EVMs whose VVPATs would be physically tallied, the issue of what constitutes as ‘reasonable’ or equitable, will surely come up again at a later stage. This figure has been arrived at now on the basis of what is practical, realistic or possible at the moment. The court did make a point, that while examining the petition, “proximity to the election schedule announced by the ECI must be kept in mind.”
ECI’s Response to Opposition’s Plea Is Weak
The Supreme Court took note of two points made by the Election Commission when it was asked to the plea of N Chandrababu Naidu and other Opposition leaders. Firstly, the ECI stated it sought the help of an expert body, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), asking “what would be the reasonable sample size of polling stations where VVPAT slips verification are required to be carried out to achieve the object of establishing the credibility and integrity of the electoral process.”
The ISI submitted to the ECI, that the “verification of VVPAT paper trail of 479 (randomly selected) EVMs would generate over 99 percent accuracy in the election results.” This number is less than the total number of Lok Sabha seats.
Even if the Supreme Court agreed with this finding or claim of ISI, it did not think that this low number of paper trail verification would satisfy people. There are upwards of 4,100 assembly segments in the country, which means that paper trail verification would be taken up for more than 20,500 EVMs.
To say the least, the ECI’s objections to the Opposition’s plea were weak, and exhibited its reluctance to make the electoral process more transparent. Firstly, the ECI claimed that results would be delayed by six days. Most would recall that even during the days of paper ballots, the majority of results or trends would be available within twenty-four hours from beginning of counting.
Even taking into account the increase in electorate size, the ECI could certainly deploy more manpower to maintain same speed if not make the process faster.
ECI’s Casual Attitude Towards the Expert Committee
Furthermore, the ECI’s intentions raised suspicion because of its casual attitude towards the Expert Committee which it had constituted to make recommendations on VVPAT-based audit. In a letter to the President, a group of former civil servants of the All India and Central Services, wrote on 8 April, that the first meeting of the group on 4 October 2018, the Commission “mysteriously delayed by five months”.
After this, the next meeting “was held without inviting the members who expressed dissenting views in the first meeting.” This showed the ECI’s intention to get only its viewpoint endorsed and ensure that the exercise was nothing but an eyewash.
Certainly, the Supreme Court has upheld in principle the Opposition’s plea, although the number of VVPAT audits it has ordered, are less than what was sought. Yet, the door for greater scrutiny has been opened, and it is a matter of time before the Pandora's Box surrounding the EVMs open up. After all, the apex court noted in its order that it was not possible to examine “at this stage”, the “issues regarding the integrity of the EVMs which have been raised at a belated stage”. This issue will certainly come back for legal scrutiny.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent books are ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin. 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.)
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