On 25 January, 2024, the Election Commission of India (ECI) will observe its 74th foundation anniversary. The foundation day of the ECI is celebrated nowadays as National Voters’ Day. As a permanent constitutional body entrusted with the responsibility of conducting elections in a country as vast and diverse as India, the institutional significance of the ECI can hardly be overemphasised. The credibility of the electoral exercise depends considerably on the credibility of the Election Commission and the ECI today suffers from a major crisis on this score. The refusal of the ECI to meet a delegation of the INDIA bloc over the demand for 100% counting of VVPAT slips has further shaken the confidence of voters on the fairness of the election process.
India is currently one of the few countries across the world where voting is done almost entirely through electronic voting machines or EVMs. Only small numbers of voters – mostly sections of government staff including employees on polling duty and elderly voters with health issues – who are in no position to visit their designated polling booths are entitled to use postal ballots. A decade ago the Election Commission itself accepted the fact that the machines deny the electors their basic right to be assured that their votes have been duly credited to candidates they have voted for. To inspire confidence among voters, the EC agreed to complement every EVM with machines generating Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail or VVPAT record. But what use is a VVPAT machine if voters are not given a chance to actually verify the paper trail and the votes thus verified are not taken up for counting?
Of late there have been growing complaints and doubts about votes being ‘transferred’ to select symbols and results thus being technologically manipulated. It should be remembered that prior to the introduction of the VVPAT the BJP was most vocal about the lack of reliability of EVMs. From Advani to Modi, senior BJP leaders then used to talk about democracy being endangered by EVMs. Now the BJP has turned into the most vocal champion of EVMs and rejects the very idea of using the VVPAT record to dispel widespread doubts and complaints raised by the electorate. All that the INDIA bloc has suggested is that voters should get a chance to verify their votes and the verified paper slips should be taken up as a substitute for ballots and treated as the basis for counting.
We are told that such counting would take a lot of time. Till two decades ago we were used to waiting for the counting of ballot papers. As former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi has argued, the counting of VVPAT slips would take much less time than the counting of multi-candidate ballots in earlier elections. At the end of the day, the biggest test of the credibility of any electoral exercise is the confidence of the electorate. The very introduction of VVPAT took place in order to inspire confidence in the voters’ minds. Now that large sections of electors and parties of the INDIA bloc, which accounted for more than half of the votes polled in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, are demanding complete count of VVPAT slips there can be no reason for the ECI not to agree to that public demand.
If India is still internationally regarded as a functional democracy howsoever flawed and limited, at the heart of it lies the overall credibility of India’s electoral track record. But now along with the constitutional foundation and institutional framework of democracy, the electoral system itself is fast losing its credibility. Everything related to elections is being rendered absolutely opaque and arbitrary. The corporate funding of elections has been granted absolute secrecy through the shadowy system of electoral bonds with the government telling the Supreme Court that the people had no business to know about the source and identity of the electoral bonds. The government of the day has now got total control over the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner. And the committee appointed under the chairmanship of former President Ramnath Kovind is all set to club all elections into a single event under the dubious “One Nation, One Election” slogan.
As the Indian Republic enters the seventy-fifth year of its existence, the electoral system needs to be rescued from the growing all-out crisis that threatens to effectively disenfranchise the people. It is encouraging to see India’s lawyer community take an active interest in saving the electoral system and at least one former CEC, a known defender of the EVM system, back the demand for complete count of VVPAT slips to allay growing apprehensions of electoral manipulations. A group of senior Supreme Court lawyers recently carried out a live demonstration in Delhi exposing the vulnerability of the current EVM-VVPAT system. As the constitutional body entrusted with the task of overseeing the entire electoral exercise, the onus is on the Election Commission of India to act to reassure the Indian electorate about the credibility and transparency of the electoral system and substantiate the claim of “free and fair elections”.