Bengal Chronicle

Integrity and Digitization of the Electoral Process in West Bengal

Voters standing in a queue to cast their votes at a polling booth, during the fifth phase of West Bengal Assembly Election, at Baruipur (west), South 24 Pargana, West Bengal on April 30, 2016.

The General Elections of the United States of America 2020 has seen the incumbent – Donald Trump question the electoral process and alleged that there has been widespread fraud. While the legal challenges to the election of Joe Biden are still underway, it broadly seems like the Trump presidency is poised to fold. Closer home, if we were to look at elections in India, the question of electoral integrity is highly important, since free and fair elections are the basis and premise on which democracy is established, in a country of 1.3 billion individuals – making it the largest democracy in the world, in terms of number of individuals involved. The electoral procedure in India is organized and overseen by the Election Commission of India.

In the 2019 General Elections of India (the results of which are shown in the map below), 900 million people were eligible to vote, making it the largest election ever in the world, with 3.96 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) and 1.74 voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) units in 10,35,918 polling stations, protected by 2 million state police personnel and 270,000 paramilitary personnel at the various polling booths. Before this election, the EVM was spoken against by nearly all opposition parties for myriad reasons and the Supreme Court of India kept receiving petitions against the machines. However, in the end, the EVMs functioned tremendously well and there was not one single complaint registered against them. To make the entire process even more secure, the Supreme Court asked the Election Commission to increase VVPAT slip vote counts to five randomly selected EVMs in every assembly constituency – meaning that the Commission had to count VVPAT slips of 20,625 EVMs before it could certify the results!

With the next general elections still four years away, the focus is now on state elections. One of the most closely contested election trail till now has been that of West Bengal, which is about to have its state elections in 2021. After looking at the history of elections in West Bengal, I shall argue for why the EVMs, and not paper ballots, are the most suitable to ensure free and fair elections in the state.

History of Elections in West Bengal

The politics of West Bengal has been historically been dominated by the Indian National Congress (INC), Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M), Trinamool Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The state assembly is unicameral and has 295 Members of the Legistlative Assembly (MLAs), with one member being nominated from the Anglo-Indian community. Auxiliary local governments known as Panchayats are held regularly with local affairs being governed by these bodies. West Bengal contributes 42 seats to the Lok Sabha and 16 seats to the Rajya Sabha of the Indian government. What is modern-day West Bengal is actually a conglomerate of sections of British-administered Bengal (with Kolkata having served as capital of India till 1911), French-administered Bengal (the former French enclave of Chandannagar joined West Bengal in 1955), a past princely state (the princely state of Cooch Behar merged with West Bengal in 1950) and parts of erstwhile Bihar.

The Congress ruled from 1947 to 1962 and again from 1972 to 1977, while the United Front ruled from 1967 to 1969. A peasant uprising broke out in Naxalbari, in northern West Bengal, in 1967 that led to creation of the Naxalite movement. After the 1971 Bangladesh War of Liberation and the 1974 Smallpox epidemic, the state politics saw the emergence of the Left Front as the dominant political entity in the state.  The Left front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) won the 1977 state elections and went on to rule the state for the next three decades, in which the well-organized CPI(M) cadre network was able to sustain electoral success in the absence of any significant grassroots-level competition.

Figure: Kolkata in 1947

How they did so is a matter that underlies the culture of violence and electoral malpractice over the decades they ruled, and beyond. The CPI(M) cadre network increasingly resorted to malafide and strong-arm tactics to win elections. This included the intimidation of ordinary people as well as outright fraud and poll rigging. While decentralisation is always good for the self-determination of, and effective administration by, the people of a locale, the decentralised government system in West Bengal degenerated into one of oppression and regressive party control. Coercion became primary and superseded the free will and consent of people, who were being governed by this oppressive government. While the party professed a loyalty to the principle of equality and equity, party loyalty became a sore need of the hour for people in rural West Bengal.

The supremum in this steady degeneration of democracy and people’s consent came with the CPI(M)-led attempt at the acquisition of peasant lands in Singur and Nandigram in 2006-2007, with the intent of setting up petrochemical and automobile factories. So much for the ‘communist dream’! The extent to which the process of democracy and elections degenerated can be gauged by the manner in which the electoral procedure was hijacked by party loyalists and members around the state. There were instances where no opposition polling agents would be present in polling booths, while in other cases, people were either forced to vote for a certain candidate or not allowed to vote at all! An interesting statistics is that the number of uncontested seats in the Panchayat elections since 1978 has kept increasing, with 11% seats going uncontested in 2003.

This trend also continued under the TMC with 34% seats being won uncontested by the TMC in 2018. Violence has been rampant and this has affected leaders, workers and common people alike. Daylight stabbings, intimidation tactics and goons manning booths are some of the things that has been seen in the state over the decades. The exact number of political murders under the CPI-M may tough to ascertain but one can make a guess from the statement by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, former chief minister of West Bengal, in 1997 that 28,000 political murders had been committed between 1977 and 1996. Mainstream, the Leftist weekly, recorded in 2010 that there were 55,000 political murders between 1977 and 2009.

Scientific poll rigging was something that the CPI(M) mastered. In the heydays of the Left Front government in the state, votes were not case but rather ‘done’. There were reports that cadres, workers and associated hooligans of the party would take over villages and even entire districts using organized violence. With the supervision of local committees – almost omnipresent in that phase, research was undertaken to ascertain those areas that would have voted against the ruling party. The research was thorough. In such areas, the people were intimidated into remaining indoors on polling day and not coming to vote. In their stead, party agents would ‘take care’ of the democratic process. Ballot tampering and balloting by individuals who were not present in person were widely reported. A prominent member of the Bengali Hindu Adarsh Samiti (BHAS) shared how there was a time when his ballot was cast in his absence, back in the day!

While the violence for Panchayati elections stems for the financial clout of Panchayats and parties bicker about under whose rule violence has been more widespread, the important point in all this is to see how this must be minimized. In the days of the paper ballot back in the day, these problems were seen to be at their peak. This began right from the electoral rolls, wherein names of opposition supporters were deleted and bogus names were added. Opposition party members were asked to note file their nominations, and upon dissent, force was used. The macabre theatre of the absurd is accentuated by the symbolism, say of sending white saris (worn by widows in Hindu families) to wives of opposition candidates – warning the possible removal of the candidate if they went through with their nomination. Threats of rape and violence were used against candidates. In the pre-EVM period, when the ballot paper did not carry candidates’ pictures, a very interesting way to confuse voters was to field people with the same names as the primary opposition candidate. On polling day, if there was an awakened citizen who did defy the party diktat to not turn up to vote, they would be faced with the reality of standing in a line of bogus voters who would try to argue with officials and waste time, so that legitimate voters would not be able to vote! If the voter was able to get through to voting, they would find themselves in voting enclosures that were placed near the windows from where agents of the ruling party would either ‘help’ the voter or keep a record of those who had voted against the ruling party.

Digitizing the Electoral Procedure

The Election Commission of India (ECI) has increasingly been regarded as the gold standard when it comes to conducting free and fair elections. With the population across the nation, the conducting of elections using paper ballots can be impractical and prone to tampering and fraud. Over the last 20 years, the ECI has successfully conducted over 100+ state legislative assembly elections and four Lok Sabha elections using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Since September 2013, Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines have been used in both state and national elections to enhance credibility, legitimacy and transparency in the voting process. There have been multiple calls to ascertain the security and integrity of the EVM-based electoral procedure, to which the ECI decisively released a statement on 12 May 2017, which the Chief Electoral Officer’s press note on 20 May 2017 highlighted:

all future elections will be mandatorily held with VVPATs. The Commission firmly believes that use of VVPAT machines along with the EVMs in all polling stations, in all future elections, will bring utmost transparency and credibility in the EVM-based voting system. This will enable each voter to see for himself in VVPAT whether his or her vote has gone to the right candidate. After press of button on BU, name and symbol the concerned candidate will appear on the screen of VVPAT machine and paper slip bearing name and symbol will be dropped in a sealed box connected with VVPAT. These slips will serve as audit trial of the vote cast by voter on EVM. Audit trail will enhance confidence and trust of voters. Use of VVPATs with EVMs must conclusively put to rest all misinformed doubts and misgivings regarding EVMs. It will also be a matter of pride that India will become the first country to deploy 100% VVPATs or paper trail in the world, an element that was missing in many countries including Netherland, Germany and Ireland.

Press Note, Chief Electoral Officer – West Bengal (No. ECI/PN/42/2017), released on 20 May 2017

The Commission has repeatedly urged all parties to ensure their qualitative and sustained participation in all the crucial steps during the elections, such as ‘First Level Checking (FLC), randomization of EVMs/VVPATs/polling personnel, EVM preparation and candidate setting, mock poll, EVM sealing and storage’.

The EVMs issued by the ECI are not hackable, since these are stand-alone machines and are not connected to the internet or any other network at point during the polling. The EVMs do not have a frequency receiver or data decoder for wireless. Therefore they cannot receive coded signal by wireless. Thus, these machines cannot be tampered using external hardware wireless, Bluetooth devices or Wi-Fi. Also, the manipulation of the machines at the manufacturing stage is ruled out due to the stringent security protocol regarding the security of software. The results of polling cannot be changed by activating a Trojan Horse using a sequence of key presses since a Trojan Horse can’t be inserted into the software code of the EVM burnt into the microcontroller chip, since this chip is one-time programmable only.

A control unit activates a Ballot Unit for only one key press at one time. If one presses any additional key, this is not sense by the Control Unit. In the duration of casting the vote, the keys of the Control Unit are also made inactive. The vote cast by the voter is transmitted by the Ballot Unit to the Control Unit in dynamically encrypted form. This is acknowledged, with a corresponding red LED lamp flash, by the Control Unit. The EVMs cannot be tampered physically and the components cannot be changed without anyone noticing. Earlier generation machines like M1 and M2 cannot have replacement of microcontroller chip or the motherboard easily, due to robust technical and administrative safeguards. The newer M3 EVMs, which have been produced since 2013, have additional features like Self Diagnostics and Tamper Detection.

The tamper detection feature makes the EVM inoperative as soon as anyone tries to open the machine. The Self-Diagnostic feature checks the machine fully every time, trying to see if there has been any change in its hardware of software. As of the directive of May 2017, Rs. 1900 crore have already been sanctioned to manufacturers to produce 13.95 lakh Ballot Unit and 9.30 lakh Control Unit of M3 units.

Figure: An EVM consisting a Ballot Unit (on the left) and Control Unit (on right)

The EVMs used in India are not produced abroad but rather indigenously by two PSU manufacturers – Bharat Electronics Ltd (Bengaluru) and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. (Hyderabad). The Software Program Code is written in-house by the two companies too. All these components undergo stringent security procedures at the factory level to maintain the highest levels of integrity. This software programme is converted into machine code by the manufacturers and every microschip has an identification number embedded into the memory. Since the producers have their digital signatures on the microchips, the question of their replacement does not arise.

This is even more so since the microchips are subjected to functional tests by the manufacturers with regards to the software. Any attempt to replace a microchip is detectable and can make the machine inoperative. There are also no possibilities of manipulation in EVM during transportation or while storing. At the district headquarters, EVMs are kept in double-lock systems under appropriate security and the safety is periodically checked. No unauthorized person can get access to the EVMs at any point of time. During periods when there are no elections, annual physical verification of all EVMs is done by District Electoral Officers and the report thus compiled is sent to the Election Commission of India. Every time this strong room is opened, it is always in the presence of representatives of all political parties contesting the relevant election.

When it comes to checks and balances that ensure tamper-proofing, there are multiple levels for the same. In the first level checking, authorized engineers of the manufacturer certify the originality of the components are physical and technical examination of each EVM, which is done with representatives of political parties overseeing the process. Defective EVMs are sent back to the factory. The First Level Checking (FLC) hall is sanitised and entry is restricted. No camera, spy pens or mobile phones are allowed in this area. The mock poll is conducted on each EVM by the election officials in the presence of representatives political parties. This poll is of atleast 1000 votes conducted on 5% EVMs randomly selected by the representatives of the political parties, and the result is shown to them.

This process is entirely video-graphed. Another safeguard is the process of candidate setting, which is done after the contesting candidates are finalized. A ballot paper is inserted in the Ballot Unit, which is thereafter sealed with Pink Paper Seal. The Ballot Unit is sealed at this stage. Wherever VVPATs are used, candidates’ symbols are loaded in each of the VVPATs at this stage. After this, the EVMs are again subjected to mock poll, using 5% randomly picked EVMs for 1000 mock poll votes. EVMs are randomized twice while being allocated to an Assembly and then to a polling booth, ruling out the possibility of any fixed allocation. After the poll, EVMs are sealed and polling agents put their signature on the seal. Candidates or the representatives of political parties can put their own seals on the strong rooms, where the EVMs are stored after the poll. They also camp in front of the strong room, which is guarded 24×7 in multilayers, with CCTV facilities.

The polled EVMs are brought to the counting centres under security, and in the presence of candidates and unique IDs of the deals, the signature of the polling agents on Control Unit are shown to the representatives of the candidates before the counting is started.

In Conclusion

The integrity of the electoral process is important for the healthy functioning of the Indian democracy. Given the history of systematic violence during elections and tampering with the electoral procedure in West Bengal over decades, the need for security and safety of the ballot units is crucial. For the first time since the Trinamool Congress government came to power, the party faces a strong opposition in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ended up winning 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal in the 2019 General Elections. This emergence of the BJP as the principal opposition in the state is evident from the TMC-BJP tussle in the state, which has seen numerous incidences of violence – from murders to conflict on the streets of cities as well as villages. In this backdrop, it is important to ensure that the state elections are held with the highest possible level of integrity.

Among the possible alternatives, the digital approach – with EVMs – stand out as among the most secure and possibly the only way in which the culture of electoral fraud and coercion can be reduced significantly, if not removed completely. If the 2019 General Elections are a marker for the competence of the Election Commission, we can only hope that the 2021 West Bengal State Elections will see a marked break in the culture of violence and malpractice that has been seen to pervade the politics of West Bengal over the last half a century.

Image courtesy: Press information Bureau

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