In the summer of 1991, I witnessed large-scale rigging in a Lok Sabha election with my own eyes. I saw dead bodies. I heard bullet shots. I witnessed goons stuffing ballot boxes with their friends stamping ballot papers and giving it to them. A day earlier, we did not believe it could happen when we were told by friends in Lucknow that we should go to Etawah because "dumping" (the local slang for a mix of "booth capturing" and "stuffing votes") was going to happen. We thought you could not plan to see poll rigging as if it was a picnic. We were wrong.
But when Delhi's media turns up in the boondocks of Uttar Pradesh, everybody has to take note. It was not surprising therefore that the then chief election commissioner, T.N. Seshan, countermanded (cancelled) the election and ordered fresh polling. Not in one or two booths or centres but the whole constituency.
We have come a long way since then. We now have electronic voting machines (EVMs) that enable more secure, easier to measure ballots. But technology can scare people who cannot understand or control it. The fact is that you can hack a machine just as you can capture a booth, but for those who can wield lathis to complain about vote rigging in a paper-based election get confused when it comes to EVMs. So they simply cry foul, despite assurances from authorities that the best measures have been taken. Those politicians who cannot understand technology simply end up rejecting it.
But what happens when such leaders (if one could call such politicians by that dignified term) actually hear an admission that there can be some vulnerability to high technology? That is what happened this week.
Take a look at what Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said as by-elections took place for four Lok Sabha seats and 10 assembly constituencies across 10 states: "They have been doing it for a while now, they do it purposely. They first create a problem with the EVM Machines and then get new ones which already has votes registered. The people have never voted for them. They do it in general elections, by-elections, and assembly elections. The EC should take strict action against the BJP. It's high time that the EVMs are scrapped and we go back to basics like many other countries have done in the world."
To be fair to him, the Election Commission admitted that the VVPAT (voter verified paper audit trail), which gives a printout to the voter to make sure the vote he/she cast has gone to the intended symbol, malfunctioned because of first-time use by polling staff or extreme heat or mishandling.
Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav said the VVPAT malfunctioned in areas where the anti-BJP coalition was strong. The level of mistrust in Indian politics is so deep, and sweeping allegations are so prevalent, that we do not realise that paper ballots are no guarantee that there will be no malpractices.
Now is the time to inform that the rigging I witnessed in 1991 was in the constituency of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh's father and his party's supremo. So, what should have Seshan done that year? Go further back from paper to some other form of voting -- such as palm leaves with iron casing?
It is true that the EC can do a better job of introducing new technologies by a combination of prior training of staff and dry runs that ensure practice that makes perfect. But it is sad commentary on a nation aiming to be a technology superpower when we are asked to go back to paper ballots. Will Mr. Azad take a horsecart to Srinagar because there have been air crashes or train accidents?
It is important for the Election Commission of India to get its act together on electronic voting and minimise errors. We need to remember that flights can be hijacked and computers can be hacked but we do not go back to bullock carts or postcards because they do. Elections are no different. The best course is for the Election Commission to create an audit trail to track the movement of EVMs as transparent as possible and lay down verifiable alternatives where malfunctioning can take place. Abandoning technology is not the answer. In fact, we are now heading for exciting new network technologies that can address key problems in the current electoral system. That would make democracy more authentic and exciting.
(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)