When the Lok Sabha elections will come calling in 2019, people of Assam along with those in the rest of the country will hopefully know where their votes actually go. Fed up with the never-ending rows over electronic voting machines (EVMs), the Election Commission is all set to introduce the next big improvement. The voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) will allow the voter to see for 7 seconds an acknowledgment slip for the candidate and party he or she had pressed the button for. Of course, the voter cannot take the VVPAT slip home, but this additiol feature should put an end to all-too-frequent accusations of doctored EVMs in which all votes cast go to one particular party (mostly the one in power). It is not as if VVPATs are totally new to Assam — these were used on experimental basis in 10 assembly constituencies of the State in the assembly elections last year. But after the completion of ratiolisation process of polling stations in Assam recently, the State Election department now knows exactly how many machines will be needed, as well as the logistics involved. The Election Commission has been at pains to prove the infallibility of its EVMs, what with India being one of a handful of tions whose citizens cast vote electronically. In June this year, the EC laid down a challenge to political parties to hack into its EVMs if they could. AAP and Congress chose to stay away from this ‘hackathon’, while CPI(M) and NCP participated only to seek demos from EC officials. While Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP announced a ‘counter-hackathon’ to prove that EVMs can be tampered with, nothing much came out of it. The entire controversy smacked of political gamesmanship and carping by sore losers, so it is welcome that the EC can now go for VVPAT to reassure voters. This has come about only because the Centre has released funds for a 2013 Supreme Court directive to introduce a paper trail in electronic voting machines; as late as April this year, the apex court had to ask the government what has been done to comply with its directive. “The ‘paper trail’ is an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections. The confidence of voters in the EVMs can be achieved only with introduction of the paper trail,” the SC bench had reminded, noting that VVPAT can also help in “manual counting of votes in case of dispute”.
So far so good, but what about the larger question of holding Lok Sabha and all State Assembly polls simultaneously? Prime Minister rendra Modi and NITI-Aayog have been pitching for synchronized polls — arguing that governce suffers badly in a country permanently in ‘campaign mode’, with different States going to polls every year. Continuous expense and deployment of government officials and security forces to conduct elections is a huge drain on the country’s resources, it has been pointed out. The EC gave its views to the Central government in March 2015 itself; recently, it came out in support of synchronized polls, provided all parties agree to make necessary constitutiol amendments to Representation of the People Act. If the necessary legal framework is in place and the logistical support materialises, the EC claims it is ‘feasible’ to conduct parliamentary and assembly elections simultaneously. In case this comes about as early as 2019, the EC estimates it will need 24 lakh each of EVMs and VVPATs, with separate sets for Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. However, it is not likely the opposition parties will come aboard on this question. The major counter argument put forward goes like this — when a party secures a landslide win at the Centre, it is also likely to sweep most of the States in a wave if polls are held simultaneously. That would ensure that the party will control both Houses of Parliament and State Assemblies. This in turn will be inimical for the country’s democratic polity if other parties do not get a chance to recoup while in control in some States. Continuous elections help different parties do well at different times, thereby helping to mitigate any wave.
Meanwhile, with political quarters and thinkers seized with this issue, the EC now finds itself in another controversy over the timing of assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. While Himachal Pradesh will go to polls on November 9, it will have to wait 39 days for results when its votes will be counted together with Gujarat, where polls are scheduled in 2 phases on December 9 and 14. The Congress and other opposition parties are alleging that the Gujarat polls have been deliberately delayed to allow the BJP government there to announce sops for voters and beat the model code for conduct. So despite the EC taking a firm stand during the no-holds barred Rajya Sabha elections only a few months back in Gujarat for which it earned Opposition accolades, it again finds itself on the dock. It has to be appreciated that the Election Commission, despite being a constitutiol body, still needs more teeth to be really effective, particularly in terms of independent funding. So far, major electoral reforms like disqualification of convicted candidates from contesting elections, and giving voters the ‘None Of The Above’ (NOTA) option to register displeasure with the choices available — have come about only thanks to the Supreme Court’s activist stand. And the political establishment is yet to introspect where the first-past-the-post system is taking the country, in which significant percentage of voters despite voting for a party, often fail to elect a single representative.