Just a few days ago I was boasting to someone I know in Australia about how much Australia had to learn from India on the conduct of elections. Australia's electoral machinery is incompetent seemingly beyond compare! They are STILL struggling to declare results in its TINY parliamentary constituencies. Elections were held on 21 August Saturday. It is Thursday evening 26 August. Six full days gone and no results yet! And I couldn't help laughing when the Australian Electoral Commission confused everyone in Australia about the meaning of "seats won" (here).
In this mess, I was proud of the fact that India has some of the most effective and efficient voting systems in the world, proud to have been part of these systems from January 1983 to 2000 – during which period I held roles as diverse as Presiding Officer, Assistant Returning Officer, Returning Officer, Additional Chief Electoral Officer, State Observer, and Central Observer. I was also involved in the testing of the first few Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in India in 1991. I held some doubts about their reliability but I believe that most issues I had raised (and others had raised) were later resolved. The mass use of EVMs was not undertaken till after 2000, though.
How easy is it to tamper with India's EVMs?
But now comes bad news that has seriously punctured my pride in India's fabled election capabilities. It appears that India's EVMs may not only NOT be a suitable role model for the world, but these gadgets might actually endanger India's democracy – unless they are immediately, and possibly radically, improved.
[Addendum!!: Sorry, looks like I took Sandeep's well written article (below) at face value. The machines are most likely fine. See Supratim's detailed comment below. Key elements:
- These machines have hard-coded chips and need machine language for programming, each being individually coded.
- These machines are not connected to the internet at any point in time – so you need physical access to hack them
In brief, I thank Supratim Basu, a senior FTI member, for reminding me not to rush to conclusions. In the same vein, there are serious issues with way the ECI has handled this matter. It should issue a public challenge (and reward to ANYONE in the world to prove that the machine can be tampered, GIVEN the strict processes that accompany its use.) See the first two comments on this post (by Supratim and me) before rushing to conclusion about Sandeep's article that you'll shortly read, below.
I apologise for the flurry I might have caused and accidentally giving air to potential innuendo re: the machines. However, I do think that repeated exposure and verification of the truth is vital. So let the ECI set up a process to ensure that such questions do not arise in the minds of Indians in the future. The credibility of EVMs is absolutely crucial to the integrity of India's democracy. Once that is done I can continue being proud of India's election machinery.]
===ORIGINAL POST RESUMES==
Thanks to Shantanu Bhagwat (a senior FTI member) for pointing me to a number of relevant facts which I should list first, for your information:
1. Shantanu's note on Facebook.
3. These slides.
4. And finally this article, Democracy imperilled by Sandeep B in The Pioneer, 26 August 2010. I've copied it entirely below for your convenience. Read this article, and be VERY, VERY concerned. Also read it on Sandeep's blog. (Sandeep, if you chance by this blog, I trust I have your permission to post your very important article here. – I'll also write to Sandeep separately on this and see if he objects to this being posted in full).
Democracy Imperilled – by Sandeep B.
The arrest of Hari Prasad, a technologist whose research helped prove beyond doubt that Indian EVMs are vulnerable to fraud, sends out a dangerous signal: That anybody who challenges the Central Election Commission runs the danger of persecution and prosecution in our democracy
Voting and freedom in a democracy are inseparable. Voting stands right at the top as one of the important ways people exercise their freedom to choose who they want to entrust with running their lives. Voting is what gives a Government the authority to govern and this authority must ideally be based on virtuous principles. Those who vote perform their duty in the fullest sense when they thoroughly understand exactly what the person they’re voting for truly represents. While this is not true of an average voter anywhere in the world today, there are thousands of such well-aware voters.
Which is why the election process is sacrosanct in strong democracies. Which is also why the Election Commission of India is a quasi-judicial constitutional body with sweeping powers that are binding even on the President. Which is also why it is insulated from the executive. But in practice, it has been infected with the same decay of political meddling that plagues most institutions in this country.
A recent instance of this malaise is the arrest of Mr Hari Prasad, technical coordinator and a key resource person of an independent citizens’ forum, VeTA. The organisation describes its purpose as “promoting Verifiability, Transparency and Accountability in Indian elections”.
Mr Prasad is a technologist with expertise in electronic voting machines, now the de facto method of voting in Indian elections. He collaborated with a team headed by Mr Alex Halderman, a Computer Science professor at Michigan University and Mr Rop Gonggrijp, a security researcher from the Netherlands, on a project that involved detailed technical analysis of Indian EVMs. Their studies yielded conclusive, scientific proof that EVMs could easily be tampered with. They conducted several demonstrations across major Indian cities showing how EVMs could be rigged.
On August 17, 2009, the EC invited them for a similar demonstration and laid illogical conditions under which the demonstration was to be done. What followed is detailed in the lucid Democracy at Risk (GVL Narasimha Rao, VeTa), also available as a downloadable book in pdf format (www.indianevm.com).
Mr Halderman captures the sequence of events that followed after February 2010 “when an anonymous source approached Hari and offered a (EVM) machine for him to study. This source requested anonymity and we have honoured this request. We have every reason to believe that the source had lawful access to the machine and made it available for scientific study as a matter of conscience, out of concern over potential security problems.” The team used this EVM to demonstrate on a TV channel how it could easily be tampered with. In the first week of August, the police visited Mr Prasad and recorded a statement about this EVM he had used.
And then, suddenly on August 21, he was arrested on a bizarre charge — that of stealing an EVM from Maharashtra. In his text message, Mr Prasad says, “I am not worried or scared at all by these tricks from the EC. I came to know that because of tremendous pressure, police had no other option than to arrest me. Our new CEC is positive in resolving EVM vulnerabilities but it seems even he came under pressure to change his stance from what he promised us on August 10.”
The episode clearly reeks of intimidation by the EC or whoever directed the arrest. As Mr Rao’s book shows, the EC has been obstinate in its stand that EVMs are “foolproof”, “perfect” and “tamper-free” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary across the world. Mr Halderman, Mr Prasad, et al have shown that by embedding a Bluetooth (wireless technology) device, it’s possible to manipulate the EVM using remote devices like a mobile phone.
The book painstakingly explains this and other methods of manipulation. Ideally, India should’ve followed suit — or ordered deeper inquiry — when the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Ireland banned EVMs because they were “easy to falsify,” risked eavesdropping” and “lacked transparency”. What’s worse is that Indian EVMs leave no trail — there is no mechanism to track suspected election fraud.
The EC’s obstinacy thus defies reason. On one hand, the EC insists that EVMs are impregnable. So there should really be no reason to not let the researchers examine the machine. What or who is it scared of? Indeed, if it were transparent, it should’ve actually facilitated Mr Prasad and team to expose any vulnerability in the EVMs. That would’ve restored our faith in the health of our democratic institutions. Instead, Mr PV Indiresan issued an outlandish analogy equating a call for a scientific inquiry into EVMs with testing the chastity of Sita. This only helps deepen suspicions about foul play in the issue.
[DIGRESSION: Btw, on 4 February 2008, Indiresan wrote to me "I will try [to review the book]" and gave his address for being sent the book, Breaking Free of Nehru. The publisher Anthem Press sent it to him by courier. He not only did not bother to review it, he did not respond to numerous subsequent email reminders. See this. What credibility does such a man have? Not with me, anyway. Small things like this show the true character of a man. Was he scared of publicly discussing my extremely adverse comments on Nehru's socialism? I trust he will one day tell me why he promised to so something but then backed out. And he didn't return the book either.
Second, NO SCIENTIST WORTH HIS SALT WILL EVER MAKE THE STATEMENT THAT INDIRESAN HAS MADE. A scientist is sworn to the truth, and to experiment. Why should he bring religious symbolism into a factual matter?]
The UPA reached a new low in 2009 when it bulldozed the appointment of Mr Navin Chawla as Chief Election Commissioner who the Shah Commission report “declared as unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others.” And now the arrest of Mr Prasad has again sent an ugly signal. Is it safe to conclude that ordinary citizens will be persecuted for seeking the truth? Ironically, on August 9, the Cabinet passed the Whistleblower Bill, but who should people turn to when the state’s institutions themselves begin to look like agents of intimidation? The current CEC, Mr SY Quraishi, must come clean immediately on this shameful affair. The country has a right to know whether the EC is a body of the Constitution or just an arm of a political party.
Tampering of EVMs is a serious issue with potential to shatter the foundations of democracy. The logical end of this will mean that only one party gets to wield power forever. If the voting process is subverted, it won’t be long before national interest will be equated with a particular political party’s interest — it harks back to a black era when “India was Indira”.
Mr Prasad’s arrest also shows how many of our fundamental freedoms are slowly being taken away without our knowledge. Equally, it’s ironical that the state is virtually powerless against a dangerous man like Abdul Nasser Madani but swoops down on an individual who asked uncomfortable questions concerning national interest.
However, it’s heartening to see the groundswell of support that has emerged across the country for Mr Prasad. Petitions, Internet groups, blogs and articles have strongly condemned the strong-arm tactics of the EC. VeTA has also indicated approaching the Supreme Court for a “renewed legal battle”. This news has already attracted international attention with people comparing this with the Florida EVM fiasco. It’s a huge blot on India’s image in the world, which regards our elections as reasonably “fair and free”. The EC needs to urgently show complete transparency with regard to this episode — admitting that the EVMs are flawed is not a personal insult to the EC.
This issue is in many ways a good test of the saying about eternal vigilance and is an opportunity to prove Ambrose Pierce wrong when he said that voting is “the instrument and symbol of a free man’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.”
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