This Article is From Apr 10, 2017

What EVM Tampering Debate Is Totally Overlooking

The controversy on EVM (Electronic Voting Machine) tampering has actually taken the focus away from an older, more urgent issue of voter privacy and the flaws in the present system of counting votes - an issue that's got little public debate, but is being heard by the Supreme Court.

In 2008, the Election Commission first proposed the use of Totaliser machines that can connect several EVM units together which then displays a consolidated result from a constituency. At the moment, results are announced booth-wise, which gives political parties macro information on how a particular area voted.

In 2015, the Law Commission in a report also supported the Election Commission's demand for these Totaliser machines stating that "Using a totaliser would increase the secrecy of votes during counting, thus preventing the disclosure of voting patterns and countering fears of intimidation and victimisation."

But the government's ministerial team set up to look into this demand has firmly rejected its use. The team, led by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, included Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parrikar, Nitin Gadkari and Ravi Shankar Prasad, argued that booth-wise information is important for political parties as it helps them hone their booth-management strategies. 

The government reiterated its stand in an affidavit presented in the Supreme Court just yesterday.

Except, booth-wise data does compromise voter privacy, giving very specific details of community-wise voting that is best not made public as I found during the counting of votes in Benares, in the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Early leads on March 11 suggested a BJP sweep. Reporters in Benares knew their story was up - Delhi and Lucknow would be the main focus - except for one last challenge that the BJP could possibly face from its Varanasi South constituency, in the heart of Benares. BJP workers had spoken of the tough battle here and though, Narendra Modi's rallies and sabhas in Benares had allayed some of their fears, till counting day, they were nervous of the challenge posed by the Congress candidate, Rajesh Mishra.

It was the reason why several journalists made their way to Mishra's home to factor in the slight possibility that there may still be a story left to report from Benares.

The leads from the first two rounds showed Mishra comfortably ahead. Within seconds, a reporter had breathlessly communicated this news, live on his channel, only to be cautioned by one of Mishra's supporters - "This is Kamalgarha, so we will get the votes, but soon the Hindu areas will open up and we will go down."

Kamalgarha is a Muslim-dominated area of mostly Ansari weavers, employed in the famed Banarasi sari industry. The Congress vote was secure here, but by the end of Round 2, counting had reached the booths of Ishwargangi, Nawapura and then Kabir Chaurha - the "Hindu areas" - and, as predicted, Mishra's lead disappeared.

'We'll continue to trail till Round 10 which is when we'll reach Pilikothi and our numbers will go up as we'll reach the Muslim areas again' announced another Congress worker, his eyes fixed on a list of polling booths of Benares. Sure enough, Mishra went ahead in Round 10, but by Round 16, the jubilation turned into resignation as a party member announced "We have not got the margin of lead we need from the Muslim areas, the last rounds are the Hindu areas. We have lost the election."
This is exactly how it works - on Counting Day, workers from every party - the Congress, BJP, BSP and others - sit with a list of polling booths listed in the order they will be counted. So, counting in Varanasi South begins with the Muslim-dominated Kamalgarha and ends with the booths in the Brahmin and Thakur-dominated Durgakund.

Given how our living patterns are structured on the basis of caste and community - Brahmin neighbourhoods, Muslim mohallas, Dalit bastis - it is simple to correlate booths with the communities that live around them. In fact, the more marginalized the community, the more sharply demarcated their neighbourhoods.

Kavita, founder editor of Khabar Lahariya, the country's only women-run media institution, says that in places like Banda and Chitrakoot, largely backward districts of Uttar Pradesh with a high Dalit population, booth-wise counting leaves many Dalit communities scared of retribution from dominant parties who could target them if they felt their vote had gone against them, "Party workers say we are losing in this round, that means those Dalits have not voted for us. Doesn't that take away from the anonymity of our votes?"

It's an important question to ask and investigate. In the era of the paper ballot, we would constantly hear of how feudal lords and bahubalis would pressure a community to vote for them. The EVM and subsequent measures of the Election Commission brought in a greater efficiency and security. But it seems booth-wise information could still expose vulnerable voting communities.

It's no surprise that the principal support for the Totaliser machines came from the Bahujan Samaj Party - its support basis is usually the most vulnerable. The Congress and the CPI(M) both endorsed the need for Totaliser machines, as did the AAP in Delhi. The TMC has rejected the Totalisers but the most vehement opposition to it has been from the government.

By law, the Election Commission does not have the right to frame a rule to introduce a totaliser, only the government does. But hearing the case on the use of Totalisers, Justices Dipak Mishra and AM Khanwilkar raised a very significant question on the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. They asked if, in a situation where the Law Commission or/and the EC makes a recommendation for framing certain rules which the cenral government rejects, can the Supreme Court "get into the arena of justifiability of why the government is not accepting the recommendations?" The next hearing for this case has been fixed for September 7th.

(Radhika Bordia is Features Editor at NDTV)

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