Here's why Tehseen Poonawalla thinks Election Commission is no holy cow

We are fast deteriorating into an authoritarian state. We are compromising our institutions. The RBI didn't stand up to government. Other institutions have started breaking down including RTI. So, why is it not possible to subvert EC?

When the results of the Pune elections came out in February, it was very surprising to me because at no point there was any wave in favour of BJP on the ground (BJP won the Pune Municipal Elections for the first time in 2017). Also, in several constituencies, the BJP didn’t have enough candidates to contest from the local areas and got people from other areas to contest. It was very surprising that those people won against the heavyweights. Prior to this, a very senior government official in the police told me the exact numbers that would come out for the BJP and the Congress. This is when the police officer was supposed to be an impartial overseer of the elections. This led to the suspicion that something is not right.

I looked up the Election Commission website for some insight into what had happened. According to the pieces of information I culled out, there were discrepancies in 41 wards regarding the number of votes polled versus the number of votes recorded in EVM. In some places, the gap between the two is as high as 600 votes. The local election official dismissed this discrepancy as a calculating error when the losing candidates went to him. But it is highly unlikely that the EC made calculation mistakes in not one but 41 wards. After we made these statistics public, the Election Commission removed the information from their website, but we took screenshots. Now they are refusing to accept data put out on their own website and are asking for a certified copy, which by all means, the Election Commission is supposed to provide the candidates.

The EC has many questions to answer

In our country, it is the Constitution that is supreme and not any institution. And the Constitution gives me the right to question every institution, including the Prime Minister and the Election Commission. The basis of a democracy is transparency. Maybe, my questions are naive. Maybe, the questions are founded on fear. But why is the Election Commission not clarifying for the sake of transparency? Why is it giving a blanket answer, ‘EVMs can’t be tampered with’? Why are they not explaining why this can’t happen?

The Election Commission has admitted in an affidavit to the Supreme Court saying that EVMs can be tampered with. That is when the Supreme Court said that Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) is compulsory (VVPAT is a printer-like machine attached to every EVM. It voters to cross-check if their votes have been cast correctly). This ends the debate. EVMs can certainly be tampered.

What used to happen earlier is that goons would capture a booth in the classic filmy style, take the ballot papers and stamp it and go out. Now, with CCTVs everywhere and people having smartphones, it’s impossible to do this. Within moments, the media would flash these videos and it will go viral. But this doesn’t mean that elections can’t be rigged. It still doesn’t ensure that election will be free and fair. Today, you have police force coming from the other states for security during elections. My suggestion to the election commission: “Why can’t the elections have their own police force?”

But let’s forget the technicalities for once. There is a bigger question that the Election Commission must address. Is every single component including a screw used in the EVM made in-house? Maybe, it’s only the software and the hardware that’s made in-house? But what about the rest of the parts? It might sound stupid, but can we deny that in 2017, technology can easily make a simple screw a smart screw and hacking can happen from anywhere. Technology has moved on. Ten years ago, we didn’t visualise what is happening today. What Arvind Kejriwal is saying, is not completely out of the blue. We need to know that if everything is being made in-house or are some parts being outsourced? If yes, who are these private vendors? What is the quality check being done? Why is all this information not in the public domain?

The Election Commission has also admitted that the shelf life of these EVMs is 15 years. So, what happened to the EVMs introduced before 2002. Where have they been disposed off? Who disposed them off? Did any private person get them? Are we sure that these EVMs didn’t make their way back in the market? Another very basic question that the EC must address, how are the EVMs transported from one place to another? Are they only transported in government vehicles or are the private vehicles hired? Are these private trucks and buses being hired by the government? Who is paying for these vehicles? Why doesn’t the Election Commission have its own vehicles to transport these EVMs. Does the election commission have its own personnel to ensure physical and cyber security of EVMs? Does EC have thier own people on its payroll? Why does it need the government to pay for it? I was told that two Indian PSUs are making EVMs. But why are government employees making EVMs? Why not EC’s own technical people making it?

Further, the EC has itself accepted, that 2 per cent of the EVMs failed during the mock-test. Who is fixing those EVMs?

The EC’s only argument is that after an EVM is shown to the candidate it’s sealed with a thread and stamped. Are you seriously telling me that in 2017, a thread and a stamp can’t be tampered with? Maybe, I am wrong, maybe it cannot be breached. But what is the problem in putting out the whole mechanism in the public domain if you are so tamper-proof? Why the secrecy around it?

In Pune, we are planning to protest outside the Election Commission’s office and court arrest because we have been left with no other option. Even to bring this event to the Court’s notice, we need a certified copy of the vote count, which we have been denied.

RBI has been compromised, why can’t EC be manipulated?

We are fast deteriorating into an authoritarian state. We are compromising our institutions. The RBI didn’t stand up to the government. Other institutions have started breaking down, including the RTI. So, why is it not possible to subvert EC? There is democracy in authoritarian states as well. In North Korea and Russia, the man of the moment gets 90 per cent of the votes. Let’s take the example of what happened in UP and Pune. If you were on ground in both these places, you would know there was no BJP wave. The only hawa for the BJP was made in the Exit Polls.

Even before Arvind Kejriwal took this issue up, I had tweeted that the reason exit polls were predicting a win for BJP was because the EVMs had been managed. They countered this argument by citing Punjab’s example. But the sentiments against the Akalis were so strong that if anyone tried to manage the elections, protests would have broken out. They needed UP for the presidential elections. It is impossible that BJP could muster 312 of the 403 seats in UP. Why not do a mock election through ballot paper in one constituency, say in Varanasi and then all will know what is the truth.

In fact, in Pune, let alone the hawa, there is anger against BJP for stealing people’s votes. Without spending any money, just based on a social media call, we had 25,000 people coming out to support our protests and vouch for the fact that they didn’t vote for BJP.

Whether it’s Congress or BJP, as long as EC keeps asking for money from the governments, it is not going to be completely independent. So, a certain portion of the GDP should be constitutionally allocated for the EC and let this budget be audited by the CAG and make the EC answerable to a group of Parliamentarians across party lines based on their strength. Of course, one would say all these changes could have been made during the Congress regime as well. But since it has come out as a political issue now, it’s only fair to take the issue forward and get the required changes made in the larger interest of the country.

(As told to Somi Das)