The decision of the opposition parties in Tamil Nadu to boycott the by-elections to five assembly constituencies is an expression of no-confidence in the electoral process in general and the Election Commission in particular, rather being aimed at the ruling DMK-Congress combine.
An AIADMK press note makes it manifest: “Looking at the way elections have been conducted in Tamil Nadu in the last three years and in particular in Thirumangalam constituency and the recent parliamentary polls, the AIADMK has doubts if the Election Commission can function in a free and fair manner.” The opposition alleges that several malpractices took place in the recent elections through use of money and muscle power to win elections and the Election Commission has been a silent spectator.
What is strange, but not surprising, is the open admission of such malpractices by three election bigwigs-N Gopalaswami, till recently the Chief Election Commissioner, SY Quraishi, Election Commissioner (possibly the next CEC) and Naresh Gupta, long-serving Chief Electoral Officer of Tamil Nadu.
A couple of weeks ago, while addressing a select gathering in Chennai in the presence of PC Alexander, former Tamil Nadu governor, Gopalaswami said candidly: “Electronic voting machines (EVMs) cannot be hacked as being alleged because these are stand-alone equipment and not connected to any operating system. We have met party muscle-power with government muscle-power by deploying armed central police force in polling booths. But we cannot counter money-power in a similar manner.”
He added: “In three months Election Commission cannot obliterate the massive money-power acquired by politicians in 57 months.” Gopalaswami also said that though EVMs could not be hacked or tampered with, “booth capturing and bogus voting is very much possible and very much prevalent”.
The statements of Quraishi and Gupta were also on the same lines, thus creating a credibility crisis about the EC and the electoral process.
In this context the “Caesar’s wife” anecdote would be appropriate. In 61 BC, Julius Caesar’s second wife, Pompeia was implicated in a scandal following the annual feast of the Great Goddess. Though men were not admitted to this religious ritual, the notorious libertine Publius Clodius allegedly disguised himself as a woman and seduced her. Caesar divorced Pompeia and an inquiry was held. Although several members of Caesar’s family gave evidence in favour of Pompeia, Caesar himself did not, and the court asked him why he had demanded a divorce when so much uncertainty surrounded the incident. “Caesar’s wife,” he replied, “must be above suspicion.”
This is applicable mutatis mutandis to the situation in Tamil Nadu’s electoral scenario. The EC, the grandmaster of India’s electoral process, described as the “greatest democratic exercise on earth” is held in high esteem in the free world and cannot afford to lose its reputation. Therefore, though these allegations of electoral malpractices are controversial in nature, the Election Commission and the electoral process must be above suspicion.
First, the EVMs. Even assuming these machines are tamper-proof, three essential elements of free and fair elections available to the voter under the paper ballot system are not there in the EVMs-checking the accuracy of the ballot paper before marking the vote; verifying whether he/she has correctly marked it, and reconstruction of the vote for authentication in case of electoral dispute.
Therefore, its fairness is open to question and doubts have been raised that need to be dispelled. It may be too late in the day to stop the EVM juggernaut. But the Election Commission can build in a reasonably foolproof safeguard in the form of a verification system. This can be done by a “voter verifiable audit trail.” A printer attached to the voting machine, something like ATMs in banks, could permit a “vote verification slip” to be printed out, giving the candidate and symbol for which the voter has voted. The voter picks up the slip, verifies that the vote has been correctly registered, and deposits it in a safe in front of the polling officer. Boxes containing these slips would be sealed and stored securely to be available for reconstruction of the vote and authentication of election results in case of any dispute. This way, while going hi-tech, basic requirements of a free and fair election can be met.
Secondly, money-power. Gopalaswami is right when he said “party money-power” cannot be physically countered by “government money-power.” But creating fear in the minds of the corrupters can certainly fight it. Countermand elections in constituencies where massive money power is being deployed-as described in Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act-because of which ‘result of the election is likely to be affected’. This will send shivers down the spine of the “cash-and-carry candidates”, who are destroying the credibility of the electoral process. The EC can obtain such information through the battery of observers they deploy, whose numbers can be augmented in select “rogue constituencies”.
As of now, such a provision under Section 59 A 2(b) of the Act is available for booth capturing as defined in Section 135A, which covers the physical act of taking possession of polling stations, ballot boxes/EVM or ballot papers because of which “result of the election is likely to be affected”.
Both suggestions can be implemented by the EC immediately. If necessary, the Act can be suitably amended, and that brooks no delay. What is at stake is the integrity of our democracy.