Ex-Govt official sounds alarm: BJP members on EVM manufacturer board; exposes potential EVM tampering; Opposition leaders ask ECI for urgent action

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By Anwarulhaq Baig

NEW DELHI–In letters written to the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), former Government Secretary E.A.S. Sarma has made shocking disclosures that not only have BJP affiliated men been appointed directors of the BEL and ECIL, both involved in manufacturing and supplying EVMs, but the voting machines themselves are also vulnerable to potential manipulation.

Opposition leaders and activists have sparked a nationwide debate by raising concerns about the security of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in India, citing the presence of BJP members on the board of Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), the company that manufactures them. Highlighting a potential conflict of interest, they now are demanding answers from the Election Commission of India (ECI) about its silence on this matter, particularly in light of upcoming elections.

In his letters, E.A.S. Sarma raised concerns about the integrity of free and fair elections in India, criticizing the Election Commission of India (ECI) for inaction regarding his earlier warnings about four BJP members appointed as “independent” directors on the board of Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), a public sector unit.

Sarma writes, “despite my bringing this disturbing fact to ECI’s attention quite some time ago, I find that the ECI, for reasons best known to it, has deliberately chosen not to act, suggesting that the Commission remains unconcerned about the level playing ground in elections being brazenly tilted in favour of the ruling BJP”

Sarma alleged that the BJP’s influence extended to supervising the functioning of BEL, a crucial entity responsible for developing the encrypted source code embedded in EVMs.
In his letter, Sarma writes, “This implies that the BJP, as a political party, has an important role in running the affairs of the BEL, which leads one to the inevitable inference that the BJP continues to supervise the functioning of the BEL, a CPSE which is closely engaged in the manufacture and supply of the EVMs including development of the “secret” encrypted source code which is embedded in the chips that form the core of the EVMs.”

The former bureaucrat claimed that this affiliation raises concerns about the independence of PSUs entrusted with EVMs, particularly amidst growing concerns about their vulnerability and potential for manipulation.

One of the independent directors mentioned in the letter, Mansukhbhai Shamjibhai Khachariya, was singled out for having explicit ties to the BJP, as indicated on BEL’s website.

Questioning Khachariya’s appointment as an independent director, a role that demands impartiality under the Companies Act, Sarma asks “Does not the Commission find it highly objectionable for an important office bearer of the BJP to be nominated to the BEL’s Board as an ‘independent’ Director? The Companies Act mandates that an independent Director should play a pivotal role in managing the affairs of the company. In this particular case, this company is closely engaged in the manufacture and supply of EVMs, especially at a time when there is growing criticism against EVM technology and its vulnerability to manipulation.”

Sarma pointed out that BEL’s website blatantly displaying Khachariya’s background as a key BJP member suggests a blurring of the line between the ruling political party and the functioning of BEL. Sarma writes “The fact that BEL’s website proudly displays Shri Khanchariya’s background as a member of the BJP suggests the blurring of the dividing line between the ruling political executive and the functioning of the BEL, which is expected under Article 12 of the Constitution to act as “an arm” of the State and play a critical role in ensuring that the EVMs supplied by it are not vulnerable to manipulation.”

Sarma alleged similar BJP members also occupy board positions in Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL), another PSU that makes EVMs.

The former secretary to the Government of India accused the ECI of neglecting its constitutional duty to ensure free and fair elections by allegedly siding with the ruling party through its approval of BJP representatives on these PSUs’ boards. Sarma urged the ECI, under Article 324 of the Constitution, to intervene and revoke the directorship of party-affiliated individuals on BEL’s board. He warned that failure to address those concerns promptly would further erode the credibility of the Election Commission, impacting the future of Indian democracy.

In another letter which he wrote on February 1, 2024, Sarma raises issues related to major technical defects and potential manipulation of EVMs. Sarma also highlights the lack of totalisers in EVMs, which he believes violates the secrecy of voting. He writes “As I have pointed out time and again, EVM technology as it is the case today is not only vulnerable to manipulation but also violates the secrecy of voting to the extent of its inability to permit the “mixing” of booth-wise ballots within a constituency, since it does not use totalisers. In my view, this is a serious legal infringement.”

Sarma cites EVM expert Madhav Deshpande, a former CEO of Tulip Software and a former consultant to the Obama administration, who highlights vulnerabilities in the current system, including the possibility of manipulating the VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) unit.

In a recent development, concerns over the vulnerability of EVMs have been highlighted by Deshpande. In an interview with journalist Karan Thapar, Deshpande extensively outlined vulnerabilities in the current EVM setup.

Specifically, Deshpande explained how the VVPAT units could potentially be manipulated in the process of uploading constituency-wise candidate data prior to Election Day. He warned that without independent expert oversight on the VVPAT data uploading procedures, there remains a risk of vote tampering. To address this, Deshpande suggested technical changes to simultaneously transmit ballot unit votes to both VVPAT and control units. He also advised allowing surveillance of VVPAT data processes by all political parties.

Highlighting Deshpande’s opinions on vulnerabilities in EVMs that can allow manipulation of votes, Sarma writes, “While the Ballot unit and the Control unit are randomised and therefore independent of the location wherever they are used, the VVPAT unit is location-specific, as constituency-wise, candidate-wise information is uploaded into it a few days before it is deployed. To that extent, it depends on the data fed into it and the format in which it is fed. Though only authorised persons are allowed to attend to this, since it is a manual operation, even without the knowledge of the authorised persons, the format in which the data is uploaded into the VVPAT unit may leave room for manipulation. Such manipulation may result in the VVPAT unit conveying the vote cast in favour of one candidate to another candidate unless the process of feeding the data module into the VVPAT unit is subject to independent expert oversight and surveillance by all political parties. The absence of such independent surveillance makes the system vulnerable to manipulation. A mere 100% cross-verification of the electronic votes counted vis-a-vis the VVPAT count may not fully address this issue. It calls for a far more verification process than that.”

Sarma asked the Election Commission to take urgent steps like changing the EVM configuration, allowing independent audits, pairing VVPATs with control units, and geo-tagging control units to prevent unauthorized movement. He urged ECI to invite Deshpande to provide further insights and to take immediate action to restore public trust in the electoral process.

Sarma warned that the Election Commission’s credibility is at stake over these issues and it must take corrective action immediately to function transparently and independently as per its Constitutional mandate.

Political leaders and activists react

Sarma’s letters have sparked debate and raised concerns about the potential influence of political parties on EVM manufacturing and the neutrality of the ECI. However, The ECI has yet to issue an official response to the allegations.

Citing the presence of BJP members on the board of BEL, which manufactures EVMs, Randeep Singh Surjewala, spokesperson for the Indian National Congress, posed questions on Twitter highlighting the potential conflict of interest arising from BJP office bearers and nominees serving as directors at BEL. He expressed doubts about the security of EVMs and the possibility of free and fair elections. Surjewala demanded answers from the ECI, questioning their silence.

Reacting over it, MP from Maharashtra and Deputy Leader of Shiv Sena, Priyanka Chaturvedi questioned the impartiality of BEL. She said “Did you know that BEL has upto 4 independent directors who are BJP nominees and some are BJP office bearers too. The Companies Act mandates that an independent Director should play a pivotal role in managing the affairs of the company.”

Emphasizing the significance of Sarma’s concerns the Shiv Sena leader said, “It should concern the entire nation because the votes they register should be counted transparently and without chances of manipulation.”

Chaturvedi raised the alarming question of how one can expect fairness in electoral outcomes when nominees of the ruling party are allowed to participate in crucial processes. She said, “How can one expect fairness if the level playing field is skewed in favour of the ruling party and allowing its nominees to participate in processes that are crucial to electoral outcomes. It is a crying shame that ECI has continued to brazenly ignore these issues – whether it is VVPAT or BEL.”

In a tweet, senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has drawn attention towards EAS Sarma’s concerns. The Congress leader emphasized the need for scrutiny and highlighted the significance of these concerns. Singh questioned why the Election Commission of India and the Prime Minister’s Office have not taken cognizance of Sarma’s letter, urging them to address these pressing issues promptly.

Raising concerns about EVM manipulation, Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury announced the party’s campaign, “over EVM manipulation concerns the Party will campaign for re-sequencing of the electronic units in the polling booths – voting units, control units and VVPAT. At least 50 per cent of VVPAT must be tallied with that recorded in the control unit.”

In a series of tweets, Chandra Shekhar Aazad, the Chief of Bhim Army, expressed his doubts about the use of EVMs in elections, advocating for a return to paper ballots. He highlighted widespread skepticism among citizens and national parties (excluding the ruling BJP) regarding the reliability of EVMs in ensuring fair elections.

Aazad criticized the Election Commission for neglecting these concerns, emphasizing that transparent and impartial elections are the bedrock of democracy. He proposed a shift back to paper ballots, citing the public’s trust in the traditional method. Aazad argued that this stance fuels suspicion and strengthens doubts about EVM credibility.

Drawing attention to global practices, Aazad noted that many democratic and developed nations successfully conduct elections using paper ballots. He urged the Election Commission to restore public confidence in the electoral process by reverting to paper ballots, a move he believed wouldn’t raise objections from the BJP.

Concluding with the hashtag #Ban_EVM_Save_Democracy, Aazad called for a reevaluation of the electoral system to safeguard democratic values.

Meanwhile, NCP leader Sharad Pawar has attended a protest organized by the Bharat Mukti Morcha at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi recently. The demonstration demanded the abolition of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and a return to paper ballots in Indian elections.

Pawar expressed solidarity with the protestors and echoed their concerns about the reliability and transparency of the electronic voting system. He was joined by Vaman Meshram, the National President of Bharat Mukti Morcha, who led the demonstration. This protest adds to the growing chorus of voices calling for a reevaluation of EVMs in India. Concerns about the vulnerability of EVMs to tampering and manipulation have persisted for years, and recent elections have further fueled these anxieties.

Sharing the letter of Sarma, Former Secretary, CEO of Prasar Bharti, and currently TMC MP, Jawhar Sircar has called it disturbing news.

These concerns gain context with the recent BJP victory in the Chandigarh mayoral election, despite the AAP and Congress alliance holding a clear majority. The cancellation of eight votes, raising questions about their validity, fueled suspicions about the fairness of the process.

Reacting on Chandigarh poll row and Sarma’s allegations, senior Supreme Court lawyer and prominent civil right activist Prashant Bhushan writes on X, “Apart from manipulating EVMs (which have a programmable chip) which are made by Govt corporations with BJP directors, use of brazenly partisan returning officers is the other way in which democracy can be stolen.”

As the controversy surrounding EVMs continues to intensify, the Election Commission faces heightened scrutiny over its ability to maintain the integrity of the electoral system and ensure free and fair elections in the world’s largest democracy.

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