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Safe to press

Published : Mar 19, 2019, 5:55 am IST
Updated : Mar 19, 2019, 6:37 am IST

The Election Commission said we will hand over the machine for examination and they said they had their own machine built on the same pattern.

The EVM and the VVPAT are in focus as elections loom and pet  theories about the machines keep surfacing.
 The EVM and the VVPAT are in focus as elections loom and pet theories about the machines keep surfacing.

In what was probably the shortest period for a Chief Election Commissioner to conduct a national election, I announced elections in end February 2004 after I had been appointed in early Feb. The first decision we had to take was on the machines – Electronic Voting Machines. We took a bold decision to use them in all constituencies and contacted the manufacturers. A few months in advance we had informed them on the likely number of machines we would need — a stock of 10 lakh machines. We had about 8 lakhs in hand and needed a standby of 2 lakhs. For some states like Andhra and Orissa, where we held simultaneous elections, we needed more machines. The government was never hesitant about allotting money.

There was a remarkably warm reception for the machines. People wanted to use them. I have always been saying the machines are credible, robust and reliable. The EVM is a simple machine. An American had written that it is a blend of a calculator and a Casio musical instrument because of the placement of the buttons. There is a story that an American sent a ball pen to space and it did not work but when a Russian sent a pencil, it worked. When someone tried a sophisticated machine, it did not work but when India tried something simple, it worked. Its cost was around Rs 300-400 (of one EVM). The credit goes to the engineers of Electronic Corporation of India, and Bharat Electronics.

The famous Tamil writer Sujatha was also associated with the EVM as one of the engineers. The machine was not immediately introduced because there is always apprehension associated with it. It started during Seshan’s period. Then it was referred to a committee of engineers in DRDO. Then another Committee headed by Dr Indiresan of IIT. And they produced a report saying they were absolutely trustworthy. In fact, I met Dr Indiresan before taking the decision to introduce the machine everywhere. I asked, “Sir, are you sure we will not get into trouble?” He said, “No. I had asked 40 electronic engineers to break open the machines and find a loophole. None of them could find one. So, I have no hesitation in saying they are absolutely trustworthy. Indiresan and the committee told me this and we went ahead and took a bold decision to use only EVMs.

When the results were announced, Prannoy Roy interviewed me at my home at 8 O’clock and asked me – “Are you nervous?” I asked, “Why, I am not contesting the elections.” I am not interested in any particular party. As far as the machines are concerned, they have been certified, experimented, and trusted. They were even questioned in the court and nothing happened. So, I knew, barring some unforeseen incidents, the machine will deliver. They did deliver. Hardly 0.01% of the machines, according to the voters, did not work. The machines don’t lie.

There are so many safeguards in the machine. One of the safeguards is that in each booth, before starting the elections, the machine is tested in the presence of the party agents. The biggest advantage of the machine is that you save a lot of paper. I heard that more than 200,000-300,000 reams of paper used to be used in the elections. The EVM is environment friendly, quick casting of votes and there are no invalid votes.

I have been asked what with the current technology with which they are able to break in and hack into anything and I replied that the EVM is only a calculator. It will not respond to a remote control. I know political parties, including BJP questioned this. I was among the very few at that time to boldly say that the machines are not to be questioned. We had a big campaign throughout the country — on bullock carts, in street corners, in schools and colleges and villages. I agree there must have been some apprehension. But we launched a huge campaign and our officers did a good job. The results were excellent.  The EVM had come to stay.

I was the CEC when I got a call from a politician, saying the machine was giving wrong results. I noted it down and said I would call back in 10 minutes. I called my CEO and said please order an immediate enquiry. If the machine is doing it, segregate it, replace with a new machine. I want this machine to be sent to Delhi. We will verify what the problem is. It was found that the machine was not at fault.  Machines are reliable. The Election Commission has brought out a nice booklet on the EVM and how we developed it. In my opinion, it should reach every media, every MP. It is also available on the website and it removes many of the apprehensions of the people.

The principal safety is the EVM cannot be hacked. One of the important ingredients is that it has a chip and they started criticising the chip brought from Japan, whether it can be tutored. The chip that is put in the machine is burnt as soon as it is programmed as a calculator. It cannot be reused. Within the machine, we have built a number of safeguards. Nobody can do anything unless you break open the machine, remove the old chip, put in a new chip and things like that. But for that too, we have so many safeguards. One of the things we ensured is that the machine is not kept in one state forever. The machine is shifted before every election. The names of the candidates are stuck on the basis of alphabetical order. In one constituency, one party may be on top and in another constituency, the same party may be at the bottom. These are things that can be explained to a logical mind.  Still some people questioned it and the issue went to the Supreme Court.

Jayalalithaa and Amarinder Singh kept complaining. The Supreme Court said please prove the EVM can be doctored or tutored. The Election Commission said we will hand over the machine for examination and they said they had their own machine built on the same pattern. What are the safeguards in those machines, we asked. Their cases were dismissed and both of them got elected in the next elections. Then they didn’t open their mouths. Amarinder went on to say, “Excellent. I now believe.”

 They wanted VVPAT  (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail). When you vote, a slip comes in an adjacent unit and the machine shows whom you have voted for. This satisfies the voter, but in my opinion, it is a dangerous thing. Some people say, I voted for X but Y has come. Who is to be believed unless you have a CCTV. But with a CCTV the secrecy of the ballot is lost.

If they are going to tally the machine count with the VVPAT, then how much time will it take to cover 1 million polling stations? Why are we complicating the system? If we have anything to suggest to improve the system, please do. They have introduced VVPAT and still some parties will have complaints. The machines are absolutely trustworthy. They cannot be tutored or doctored by any external source because it is not like a computer which can be accessed remotely. It is not an electronic instrument, it is just an instrument doing calculations. And in every polling station, the list is in a different order. It can never be hacked.

In America, this was introduced and then withdrawn. The machines were made by a private company which had made huge donations to the then ruling party. So, they abandoned it. But some states still have touchscreens and machines. Every state has a different system as America is a confederation. Initially, they were sovereign powers and then they came together. They have a Supreme Court. They have a separate election commission in each state and they follow their own rules. In fact, American parliamentarians came and had a look at our machines and they were quite satisfied. The Pakistan Prime Minister whom I met at that time when I went to Pakistan, said, “Please see if it can be introduced in Pakistan.” They were interested. He was an economist at that time, not a politician. Imran Khan was also there in a meeting when they had a workshop on conducting elections.

Taruvai Subayya Krishnamurthy is a former IRS officer who served as 13th Chief Election Commissioner of India in 2004 - 2005. He had served in ECI as Commissioner from January 2000

Tags: evm, vvpat