Despite all these alleged manipulations of elections, mighty governments have fallen, parties have been routed and candidates have lost deposits.
The debate about manipulating voters through mammoth digital media spread is still raging. It is overlapping with the controversy over alleged tampering of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM).
Now that many parties have begun to demand banning of EVMs or providing a paper trail, even the BJP has indicated that it could reconsider. A few years ago, the well-known BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao had written a book detailing the lacunae in the electronic voting system. He had demanded a ban on it. Even the redoubtable maverick Subramanian Swamy had moved court seeking a ban on EVMs.
Before EVMs, during the ballot paper era, there were allegations of large scale booth capturing. Candidates and parties were accused of hiring thugs and musclemen to beat up election staff and stamp ballots in favour of the candidate who hired them. Frequent complaints to the Election Commission about booth rigging led to this technological alternative.
Most countries in the world, including technologically advanced ones, are still following the paper ballot method. Many software experts and artificial intelligence wizards have shown the vulnerability of the EVMs. They’ve shown that while EVMs at the booth may appear OK, it is possible to tamper with the machine through signal manipulation after the voting is over, or by installing secret software.
In 1971, the Sangh Parivar had alleged that Indira Gandhi, with the help of Soviet scientists, used “magic ink”, which erased the actual symbol on the ballot that was stamped and placed the Congress symbol instead. Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray publicly said it was not the victory of the Bai (Indira) or of the gai (cow and calf, the symbol of Congress back then) but of shai (ink)!
At that time, the Russians used to be blamed for “technological interference” in elections abroad. We are witnessing the debate in the US today in a totally different context and with different techniques of skulduggery!
Despite all these alleged manipulations, mighty governments have fallen, parties have been routed, and candidates have lost deposits. In 1977, the Congress lost the parliamentary elections; Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi were defeated. The landslide victory of the Janata Party (bringing second freedom of the country under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan) buried the 1971 debate on magic ink.
After the hilarious disintegration of the Janata Party and collapse of two governments in succession – those of Morarji Desai and Charan Singh – came the 1980 election. Nobody raised any issue of electoral roll tampering or booth capturing.
And yet ever since the EVMs came on scene, suspicions have arisen – first from the ranks of the BJP, and now from many opposition parties, including the Congress. Indeed, there have been many mysterious victories and intriguing defeats.
Though the Election Commission has repeatedly discarded such complaints, satisfactory explanations have not been given. High-tech software experts in the IITs to tech experts in the US and UK have given substantive evidence that it is possible to tamper and manipulate the machines. Even the system of the so-called paper trail is not regarded as foolproof.
From former NDA ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie to Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee, there is now a strident demand to scrap EVMs. The Russo-American controversy about massive technological manipulation has further fuelled the debate, particularly after the abject apology from Facebook.
The lack of faith in the machines is actually a lack of faith in the Election Commission and government.
If the BJP wins in Karnataka or manages to form the government in the state by deceit, the demand to scrap the EVMs will only grow louder. The opposition is getting desperate as the Lok Sabha elections come closer.
Interestingly, though the BJP and the NDA government as well as the Election Commission are defending the efficacy of the machines, there is considerable panic in those camps. BJP ministers and MPs have begun to express apprehensions as NDA partners begin to jump ship.
Most people remember how in 1977, the Indira Gandhi government was breached when Jagjivan Ram, H.N. Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy quit the party on the eve of the elections. That was the beginning of the end.
Similarly, when the socialists led the split in the Janata Party, the collapse became inevitable. Even the first NDA government led by Vajpayee fell when Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK chose to leave the alliance. A similar process has begun, and it is beginning to rattle even the Modi-Shah duo and their election machinery.
The question that has intrigued and confused the pundits and psephologists is why do people vote the way they do: Economy, charismatic leadership, cadre-based booth management, money and muscle power, or manipulated machines?
The full answer has still not been found. But one thing is for sure: Minds matter more than machines, though it must be said that in this era of fake news and post-truth, machines have acquired huge power – with artificial intelligence and mind management through social media.