Is it possible that a press conference in London by a seemingly deranged man about the working of EVMs in India can hijack all media debate for days on end in the world’s largest democracy? One would think not, but this is precisely what happened last week. On 20th January, a gentleman called Syed Shuja, who says he has “political asylum” in the US, invited the media, and representatives of all political parties in India, to witness what he described is a “hackathon”, where he would demonstrate that all elections conducted through EVMs were rigged. No political party turned up to give credence to this preposterous claim. But Kapil Sibal, a senior leader of the Congress Party, did.
Mr Sibal later clarified that he was in London on a personal visit, and that he attended this event in his personal capacity. This is possible, and Mr Sibal has every right to entertain himself in any way he wishes. But what is absurd is to give credence to Mr Shuja. This is the mistake the Congress made. In trying to defend the presence of Mr Sibal at this joke of an event, it ended up giving credibility to this crackpot.
Who is Mr Shuja? He is a self-declared EVM hacker with what appears to be a completely cock and bull story about his past. According to the Indian Journalists Association (IJA), which organised this press conference, he was given political asylum by the US in March 2018. However, the name in the documents released by the IJA is of one Syed Hyder Ahmed; the date of birth of Mr Shuja does not match with the documents; Mr Shuja’s claim that he worked with the Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL) has been rubbished by the ECIL. In an official letter to the Election Commission (EC), the ECIL has categorically stated that no such person worked with it, or was associated with the design and development of EVMs.
Mr Shuja’s claim is that 11 of his teammates were murdered in a guest house in Hyderabad in the presence of BJP MLA, G. Kishan Reddy. Mr Reddy has emphatically denied the allegation. Moreover, the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in London, to which the IJA is affiliated, has squarely distanced itself from the rantings of Mr Shuja. Deborah Bonetti, the director of the FPA, said in a tweet that Mr Shuja “provided no proof for the very extreme allegations” he made, and that he should not have been given a platform. She further said that the FPA “strongly disassociates itself with any claims made by the speaker”. Even Ashish Ray, the head of the IJA, admitted that Mr Shuja could not “substantiate his allegations, and left a roomful of scribes highly skeptical if not annoyed”.
If this is the level of Mr Shuja’s credibility, why did our media — and many of our leading politicians — give so much space and time to what he said? The answer is unfortunate but simple. The world’s largest democracy spent less time in demolishing the outrageous allegations of an obvious lunatic, and more on the presence of Mr Sibal at the event. As a consequence, Mr Shuja’s ridiculous claims got largely unanalysed publicity, and made Indians as a whole look rather foolish in the eyes of the international community. For days there was nothing else to discuss on many TV channels except what this madman had said. What should have been disdainfully dismissed with a flick of a finger by any mature democracy, became the subject of mainstream discussion till days after the IJA press conference in London.
What is worse is that the central point that Mr Shuja made, entirely on baseless grounds, that EVMs can be — and have been hacked — became a subject matter of a full-fledged debate in our great land. Mr Sibal, who must be feeling a little sheepish about being the only political leader who was present at the Shuja circus, sought to defend himself by saying that the claims of this self-styled cyber expert “were very serious and must be probed”. Congress spokespersons followed suit. A man whose allegations were rubbished by the very organisation that organised his presser, transformed into the mascot of “reforming” the Indian democratic system, making it a classic case of making a dubious messenger into a giant messiah!
It is utter nonsense to postulate that EVM machines are capable of mass hacking. Mr Shuja’s claim that the 2014 parliamentary elections were rigged through a manipulation of EVM machines, is laughable. So is Mr Shuja’s assertion that the historic win of the AAP party in the last Delhi state elections was rigged. The country has seen countless elections where EVMs have been used. Some have been won by the BJP, and some by the Congress. There is no pattern to even remotely suggest that electoral results in all these elections is part of some Machiavellian plan involving the systematic rigging of EVMs.
Yes, there could be scope for improving the functioning of EVMs. But this is a matter which the EC is more than competent to handle. Suggestions regarding VVPATs — or any other way to strengthen the impartiality and effectiveness of EVMs — are welcome. The correct thing is to discuss these matters within our own forums, and not give so much importance to ridiculous charges emanating from foreign soil. Responsible people, like S.Y. Qureshi, the former CEC, have publicly stated that EVMs are not susceptible to mass rigging. Do we listen to people like him or to Mr Shuja? It seems that we need to remind ourselves that we are not a tin-pot democracy born yesterday, but that elections in India are the world’s single largest organised human operation whose credibility — inspite of some shortcomings — has stood the test of time.
One last point: The demand that EVMs should be replaced by ballot papers is truly misplaced. The greatest abuse of the electoral process took place when ballot papers were the only option, and in many parts of India, all that elections meant was which candidate had the greater muscle power to capture more ballot papers. If more can be done to remove any residual doubts regarding the working of EVMs, the EC should do so. But to ask for a reversal to ballot papers would be by far a wrong step, and least of all because of the allegations of people like Mr Shuja.