Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

Electoral bonds, EVMs, wholesale defections

We need to take an active interest in governance, and ensure that the long-term interest of the nation, and its citizens, are not trampled upon

Fredrick Noronha | FEBRUARY 20, 2024, 12:10 AM IST

The other day, while half-listening to the ‘official’ news that comes off All India Radio these days, the word electoral bonds almost hidden somewhere at the end of the programme. Did one hear right? Indeed. The Supreme Court of India had struck down the electoral bonds, approved by the Modi government.  

For a few hours, the issue was in the news. Live Law called SC’s judgement on the electoral bonds case “a fillip to democracy”. TheWire.in, known for its critical stance towards the government in power, said: “The SC’s Electoral Bonds Judgement Affirms the Primacy of the Vote Over The Note.”  

Don’t miss the rare online interviews with Commodore Lokesh Batra, Indian Navy, 1967 batch. This near-octogenarian has dedicated his post retirement years to fighting for justice using the RTI Act. It was his efforts that brought about justice over the bizarre official approach of the electoral bonds. These are the true patriots who understand how this could affect the future of the country.  

An Association for Democratic Reforms profile of Batra says; “In 2017, in a purported bid to bring about greater transparency and accountability in political funding in India, the Modi government proposed the electoral bond scheme that ensured complete anonymity for the donor and the political party that receives them. The worrying aspect of this scheme is that it fundamentally took away the right of an Indian voter to know who donated money to a particular party and how much.”  

One gets the feeling that this is not the last we’ve heard about the “electoral bonds”. Let’s see....  

In recent weeks, EVMs have been in the news. Congress and AAP supporters fear that there’s something wrong with the results emerging from the ballot, while the BJP argues vehemently that nothing untoward is happening.  

Leave politics aside. Tampered or not tampered is really not the point. The question really is whether this technology is transparent, do we really know how it works, and if it is really all that safe and fool-proof as claimed to be.  

First of all, one has to note the irony in the situation. The Congress, whose governments implemented the EVMs across India, is today suspicion of it. On the other hand, the BJP had strongly criticised the EVMs in the past. Party’s then leader Advani railed against it, while the BJP Rajya Sabha MP GVL Narasimha Rao has even written a book against EMVs. ‘Democracy at Risk! Can We Trust Our Electronic Voting Machines?’ is still available on Amazon, though at a whopping price of Rs 2,139.  

There are many questions that need to be asked.  

First of all, the utter lack of transparency on the EVM’s code is rather unfair. Those questioning the EVMs have even faced arrest for “stealing” the voting machines. Google reminds us of the case of Hari Krishna Prasad, arrested for EVM “theft” in 2010 after wanting to demo his allegations of how EVMs could be hacked.  

Prasad went on to co-author a paper on the Indian EVMs with J. Alex Halderman, professor at the University of Michigan, and director of Centre for Computer Security and Society. Another co-author is Rop Gonggrijp, the noted Dutch hacker and a founder of the alternate internet-service provider XS4ALL.  

There is also the question of the secrecy of the code which runs the EVM. It would make a lot of sense, in the spirit of openness, to allow the code controlling the EVMs to be audited by skilled personnel. If all could know how exactly the software was working, it could help weed out any possible risks, and make the software more secure, not less. The debate over this issue is not new.   

Of course, EVMs and electoral bonds are important issues. (We keep pointing to poor voters being bribed by feasts of chicken and five-hundred-rupee notes, but such issues of parties being bought over wholesale, with crores in un-transparent funding, is totally overlooked.) But these are definitely not the only issue when it comes to ensuring a level electoral playing field.  

Others serious issues need to be looked at too. These include:  

- Wholesale purchase of legislators after results. We in Goa have repeatedly witnessed, regardless of the party in power. This is a complete sell-out of the interests of the citizen. Voters are unable to do anything, and are turned into helpless spectators. Media and courts have not been able to address this, despite it seriously unsettling the mandate.  

- Capture of State institutions by politicians and their supporters is also having its own huge impact.  

- Inability of the media in playing its role as a free and fair institution has been an issue of growing concern. The criticism faced by the media for being excessively supportive of the government of the day (now, and in the past) has often come up for debate.  

- Tracking granular data of voter behaviour through the use of data science is still to be properly understood. Mind power and manipulation has replaced the ‘muscle power’ of the ballot box days.  

- Promoting a polarisation among the citizens, based on various factors, including religion or caste, is a ‘corrupt practice’ under Section 123 of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951. Subsection 3 prohibits any electoral appeal based on religion, race, caste, community or language for electoral gains. But who cares?  

- Dirty tricks being used to target opponents is another matter of concern. This has spread far beyond the boundaries of India, according to the Washington Post.  

- Control of social media, or floating surrogate media organisations is worrying too. As is using raids, arrests, and disqualification of the Opposition. The lack of inner-party democracy means that it is very easy for a small caucus to take over a humongous political machine.  

This list is far from complete...  

Often, the citizen is urged to vote, as part of their democratic duty. Part of this same duty is to demand accountability and probity from the politicians who get elected...and decide on our fate. We need to take an active interest in governance, and ensure that the long-term interest of the nation, and its citizens, are not trampled upon.  

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