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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 9 New Delhi February 16, 2019

EVM Debate: Securing Faith in the Basic Institution of Free and Fair Franchise

The election watchdog had better not be found sleeping while thieves come and steal the mandate

Sunday 17 February 2019, by Badri Raina


The fundamental postulate of any democratic justice system is that a few that may be guilty may go unpunished but not one that is innocent should be convicted.

In political terms, the concomitant postulate clearly must be that the least finger raised at the credibility of the electoral process must receive due and decisive notice and investigation from those incharge of supervising elections. This, for the reason that the primary pillar of the “basic structure” of the Indian Constitution comprises “free and fair elections”, and not free and speedy ones—although nobody objects to an expeditious conclusion of the counting process. But that is not what the Constitution requires; it requires “free and fair” elections.

At a time when close to all of India’s Opposition parties continue to express skepticism about the fool-proof status of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), including those that may have won an election here or there, the dour refusal of the Election Commission of India to take these doubts on board is worrying, especially when the only political force rooting for the machine is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Let it be recalled that most of the world’s grey-haired and venerated democracies have come to reject voting by EVMs and have switched over to the good old paper ballot.

Surely, one obvious thing the Election Commission could do is to ask these democracies as to why they found it necessary to do so. Given that interactions and consultations among bureaucracies of the world happen often, there is no reason why our Commission may not obtain some informed inputs on this. And if it has already done so, to share it with “we the people”.

After all, is it not curious that these highly-developed nations have failed to manufacture a foolproof machine such as we claim to have done?

What is most curious is that despite having now equipped these machines with paper trails, the Commission should resist the demand to have votes cast matched with these paper trails beyond a suspiciously nominal 2.5 per cent.

The obvious question that begs itself is: why have the paper trails at all if they are not to be used extensively to verify the genuineness of the franchise, and be readily resorted to at any booth where a doubt maybe cast by the least participant?

Living as we are as citizens among crowding apprehensions with regard to so many state institutions, the Election Commission remains one institution that still enjoys the ordinary citizen’s goodwill and assent. How imperative therefore that this goodwill not be allowed to be eroded at any cost, if the entirety of the democratic system is to be guarded against a collapse of faith on behalf of “we the people”.

It is to be hoped that wisdom will prevail, and confabulations be undertaken among all stakeholders so that a mutually convincing modus vivendi is arrived at. As things stand, it may not be possible in the short time left to the general elections to switch wholesale to the paper ballot system of old. But citizens see no reason why it may not be agreed that the paper trails attached to the EVMs be widely scrutinised—upto 50 per cent let us say—to confirm the authenticity of the vote cast.

This may delay the announcement of results by some days, but let us reiterate: the Constitution enjoins “free and fair” elections, not speedy ones.

If this were to be agreed, and the machines stood the test, think how faith could be restored in them for the times to come. And if they fail even in one single case, the custodians of our democracy cannot then but be obliged to seek measures to remedy the processes of franchise in such ways that every citizen’s faith in the electoral process is re-established, so that we know that those who come to rule have a mandate that nobody doubts.

A word of caution: much of the media, barring exceptions, seem to view this matter as one unnecessarily, even ‘motivatedly’, floated by forces opposed to the ruling dispensation and to give the Election Commission an undeserved bad name.

Even those who see the point do not seem to quite underscore the gravity of the matter in relation to the whole edifice of our electoral democracy, but rather as a small enough issue that need not entail too much brouhaha. This is not a partisan issue, and it would be wrong for the fourth pillar of that edifice to view it in that light. The matter goes to the very heart of the ethics and credibility of the democratic system. With all else that has been happening, any failure here to persuade “we the people” that the sanctity of their vote—almost their sole input into the system of governance—is secure with those who operate the system could do irreparable damage to the standing of our democracy, and lead to unforeseen public consequences.

The media must play its role in a sustained manner to ensure the execution of “free and fair” elections, and corporate ownership and political interests should not be allowed to stand in the way of fulfilling that task.

The watchdog had better not be found sleeping while thieves come and steal the mandate.


The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

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