While the crescendo grows to ban the use of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and return to the ballot paper, there is growing understanding that the winner or loser in the Lok Sabha elections 2024 may be decided even before any vote is cast. The uncertainty surrounding the final outcome of the staggered elections may have substantially reduced because the ruling party’s apparatchiks, by using Artificial Intelligence, are not only aware of every voter but also potentially know how they will vote. A study by a scholar from Ashoka University, Sabhyasachi Das, of 2019 polls hinted at the control exercised by the ruling party to precisely predict the outcome backed by their campaigning. With greater refinement in AI technology in the last 5 years, the task of the party in power to build an ecosystem, which is much conducive for managing the elections has become easier.

Compared to 2018-2019, when a Union Minister was able to precisely predict the outcome of the elections, during the Lok Sabha elections 2024, the claim of the BJP leadership to win 400 seats out of 543 suggests greater control and confidence in not just who will vote for them, but also how it will all add up. To total up 400 seats, the BJP will have to win some big seats in Southern states, where it has not been able to make much headway all these years. The question that is being raised is – will such a result be achieved through contaminated Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) or through managing the electoral rolls?

Former Chief Election Commissioner of India, S Y Qureshi, is convinced that the EVM cannot be rigged, but still, the Lok Sabha elections 2024 can be manipulated through electoral rolls. Inconvenient voters could be deleted by pliable state election commissions who are mandated to remove those names that have either expired or changed their addresses. By a rough estimate, every voter list will see approximately 20 percent deletion. One of the aggravating reasons behind the large number of deletions of the electoral roll is the high toll that COVID-19 has taken since 2020. By the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, more than 4 million people have died in the country, far in excess of the Government of India’s claims of about 4 lakhs. In fact, there is a clamour amongst political parties to lay claim to the dead and revive them as their voters. Even if a million votes of the dead are not deleted, then it would have a bearing on any constituency’s outcome

This is not alone; there are specialised agencies that weaponise Artificial Intelligence to ascertain the voting behaviour of a large mass of people to identify those whose names can be deleted. The coming elections could be a big challenge for opposition parties to prevent the removal of those voters who may back them. “There are allegations that some election officials of the states have colour-coded the voting list to facilitate the removal of the inconvenient. The paper by Sabhyasachi Das, from Ashoka University shows that during the 2019 parliament elections, there were cases of deletion of Muslim voters, which revealed itself in the inordinate number of seats where close fights took place, going in favour of the BJP. The study came to an important conclusion that the rigging was not due to EVM machines but on account of manipulation of the voters’ list. Das quotes in his monumental paper that there is no evidence that EVM manipulation can be scaled up to the national and state level.”

There are many who disagree with this assertion, including Congress leader Digvijay Singh, who is of the belief that it is important to beat the BJP till there is EVM. Rahul Gandhi, during his long march, finally endorsed Digvijay Singh’s point of view on EVM and went so far as to claim that the soul of Narendra Modi resided in the EVM. This was the first time that Rahul Gandhi lent his weight to this controversy, which has not found ready evidence to debunk it. Though questions about the source code of the EVM as well as where it is built have been questioned from time to time.

In 2013, the ECI agreed to have a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) to fight the criticism that the voter was putting his vote in a dark box with no way to ascertain where it was going. VVPAT was meant to come close to the gold standard of voting, that is, ballot paper. In the VVPAT case, the voter can see whom he has voted for until it falls in the box. To further earn the trust of voters, the ECI mandated matching a small proportion of the VVPAT slips with that of the EVM votes. Quite apparently, this has not worked due to the obstinacy of the ECI officials who are reluctant to count a larger proportion of the VVPAT votes, claiming a delay in declaring results. This is hogwash as the quality of the results is more important than any delay. Especially so when the ECI has a staggered 7-phase election that continues painfully for 3 months. There is a growing body of evidence that the VVPAT lowers the integrity of the electoral process, and to restore trust in it would involve counting all the slips. ECI finds this suggestion regressive as it would take the electoral process back to the ballot paper. ECI is refusing to meet the joint delegation of the Congress party on the VVPAT issue. It is puzzling why they do not want to do it!

Be that as it may, there is a big protest brewing on the issue of EVMs. People’s movements on other concerns have converged on the issue of EVM and VVPAT. Some are threatening that they will not allow the Lok Sabha elections 2024 to take place in their respective areas under voting machines. There are some in Maharashtra that are collecting many people to contest so that people do not fit into the EVM format. That way, the Electoral Officer will be compelled to opt for ballot paper. Will the ECI blink?

SANJAY KAPOOR is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.

ElectionEVMIndiaNarendra ModiPolitics

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Exploring the Depths of Electoral Integrity: The Battle Over EVMs and Voter Trust. Amidst increasing scrutiny, the Lok Sabha Elections 2024 face challenges from technological trust to the transparency of the voting process.
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