EVM row: Has the opposition learnt no lessons from the demonetisation debacle?
In scenes that drew sharp resemblance to the uproar seen both inside and outside Parliament over the government’s demonetisation decision, opposition parties today disrupted proceedings in the Rajya Sabha over alleged tampering of electronic voting machines (EVMs) to favour the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Members of the Congress, Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) trooped into the Well of the House calling the government a "cheat".
The government denied the charge, saying the Parliament was not the forum to agitate and anybody who had a problem could go to the Election Commission (EC).
A repeat of demonetisation protests?
One cannot help but draw comparisons to similar tactics adopted by the opposition soon after the government's decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes last year. The Parliament's Winter Session began on November 16, 2016, eight days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the decision to demonetise high-value currency notes.
The session, which came in the backdrop of campaigning of Assembly elections in five states, was a near washout with disruptions, chaos and protests in both the Houses. The session that lasted till December 16, 2016 was one of the least productive in terms of legislative business.
No lesson learned?
Opposition parties made demonetisation their biggest plank in the run-up to the Assembly elections in five states -- Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa -- which the BJP won 4-1. The BJP's win cannot be credited to demonetisation alone but there is no denying that it played to the benefit of the ruling party at the Centre.
While opposition parties protested the demonetisation decision tooth and nail, the BJP turned it upside down and portrayed them as those who were scared and opposed to the idea of a clean economy. If demonetisation were a benchmark to measure the mood of the people, the Assembly elections verdict showed which way the electorate thought.
The issue did not yield any political dividend for the opposition parties, with states like Uttar Pradesh – where bigwigs from across party lines had put in high stakes – voting heavily for the BJP. The reason, one may argue, is that the BJP managed to successfully put across demonetisation as a drive against corruption and black money, irrespective of the result that the scheme produced.
While protests over an issue that was botched up in its implementation and at best questionable in terms of its impact was understandable, one can ask why Opposition failed to get the desired public support.
The people supported the move and the protests did only harm the Opposition parties as they were seen fighting a battle that mattered more for their own relevance and not the woes of the people.
Ballot papers or EVM
Cut to the present and nothing much seems to have moved in terms of parties moving beyond their idea of spreading negativity. While one expects the Opposition to play its role in constructive criticism, misplaced furore played on loop is unlikely to lead them anywhere.
Frustrated over the massive drubbing in the just concluded polls – more so with the huge mandate for the BJP – several of these parties are now seeking to shift the blame for their performance, or the lack of it, to the election process altogether.
Non-BJP parties remain virtually united in their demand of moving back to the old practice of use of ballot papers in elections. To understand how justified their demand actually is, one must consider why the EVMs were introduced in the first place.
Prior to the time when the EVMs came into practice, the elections were carried out through ballot papers and incidents of booth capturing, and crime were very common. EVMs restricted malpractices in elections to a very large extent.
Also, to carry out electoral exercise in such a big country through ballot papers was logistically difficult. The counting went on for days before the final results could come out.
EVMs in other countries
The United States, for example, uses both EVMs and ballot papers, depending on the states where the election is taking place. In Netherlands, EVMs were withdrawn after a Dutch TV channel aired a documentary showing how easy it was hack the machines. Germany and Ireland have also scrapped the use of these machines.
What experts in India say about possibilities of tampering
The Election Commission has denied the allegations of EVM tampering and believes that they are a more reliable and safer means to carry out the democratic exercise.
The former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi is a very vocal proponent of EVMs but sees the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines as a means to assure transparency.
In 2013, the Supreme Court had ordered the Election Commission to implement the VVPAT system in a phased manner and the poll body had promised to have it in place by the time of the 2019 general elections. The EC cites lack of funds as the reason behind delay in implementing the VVPAT system.
Quraishi defends the use of EVMs in elections and does not see a reason to go back to the regressive practice of using ballot papers.
Some "technical experts" cite vulnerabilities in EVM machines and have raised doubts over its authenticity. To dispel the notion that the EVMs can be hacked, the ECI has decided to soon throw an “open challenge” to test the infallibility of these machines, according to a report by The Indian Express.
What good would protests in Parliament do?
The ongoing disruptions and protests by Opposition parties in the Parliament are fuelled by their sense that they lost in recently-concluded elections because the EVM machines were tampered. The Elections Commission has categorically denied the allegations and claims that the machines are impossible to manipulate.
While we cannot authenticate or debunk the charges on our own, EVM tampering was certainly not the reason for the loss of non-BJP parties. The Prime Minister and the BJP enjoys a huge support and people witnessing the ongoing protests over the issue will only feel that the valuable time of Parliament is being wasted over it.
One can only frown at such attempts by the opposition parties to hoodwink the people into believing in their relevance, despite their own lack of understanding of their real issues and aspirations. Truth be told - these parties are being viewed as sore losers, unable to digest the defeat. The protests will only strengthen that notion and parties will lose whatever credibility they have left in the eyes of public.
For, the demand to move back to ballot papers will be seen for what it is – a deliberate ploy aimed at a regressive reform that must be nipped in the bud.