Allegations of electronic voting machines (EVM) being hacked aren't new. But this time, they arrived even before the elections.
On Monday, the European chapter of the Indian Journalists' Association organised a press conference in London, at which, an Indian cyber security based in the US made a number of sensational claims. Despite the accusations of murder he made, what appear to have drawn more attention — given the election season in the air — are his allegations that EVMs can — have been — hacked and the BJP had rigged the 2014 general elections.
Syed Shuja, the "cyber expert", addressed the press conference from the US via Skype, claiming that he could not attend the presser in person as he had been attacked a few days ago. But speaking to journalists from his couch did not take away from the startling claims he made.
Shuja asserted that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections had been rigged from the beginning. (The BJP had won 282 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha in the polls.) Claiming that he had been part of the team that had made the EVMs used in the 2014 polls, he said he could demonstrate how the voting machines could be hacked (though he didn't proceed to do so at the press conference).
The most startling among the cyber security researcher's claims were that BJP leader Gopinath Munde, who died in a car accident in 2014, had been killed because he knew about the rigging, and that journalist Gauri Lankesh, too, was murdered as she had agreed to run a story on the EVM hacking after he approached her.
Shuja's allegations have made headlines in the Indian media. But who is Syed Shuja?
The "cyber expert" said he had worked with Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) from 2009 to 2014. ECIL is one of the companies, besides Bharat Electronics Limited, that manufactures EVMs in India. The ECIL is looking into whether Shuja was indeed their employee.
While the Election Commission of India said the two firms manufacture the EVMs it uses under "very strict" supervisory and security conditions, Shuja claimed that in April 2014, he and his team realised that "signals were being emitted" from the machines used in the general elections, after ECIL had instructed them to look into whether EVMs could be hacked and if yes, how. Shuja added that the BJP had hacked the EVMs using a modulator that transmitted a "military-grade frequency".
At the press conference, Shuja went on to say that after he and his team approached the BJP in Hyderabad with their new discovery to blackmail the party, they were shot at. He claimed to have been injured in the shooting and that members of his team had died, as well, but authorities had covered up the incident in the garb of a "communal incident".
Fearing for his life, Shuja sought political asylum in the US. Although he did not present any evidence to support the myriad of allegations he made at the press conference, he claimed he had submitted all the evidence in question to US authorities in his application, which had earned him asylum in the country. Shuja said he would provide the same evidence to journalists soon.
The US knew?
With all the hue and cry over Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 elections in the US, it would come as a surprise if Washington really was aware that the 2014 elections in India were rigged and the EVMs were tampered with. At the moment, there are no documents to independently corroborate all the allegations Shuja made, and his word that he had submitted all the required evidence to US authorities is all there is to go by.
So even if the US did approach India with this information, it would be unlikely that the government would go public with the news, given that it is run by the BJP — the party that has already denounced the allegations and used the opportunity to, once again, target the Congress for allowing senior leader Kapil Sibal to take part in the press conference.
Even more allegations
The self-proclaimed cyber expert did not stop at merely stating that Munde was murdered for being privy to incriminating information. Shuja added that Tanzil Ahmed, the officer of the National Investigating Agency who had been looking into Munde's case, had decided to file an FIR noting that it was not an accident and that the BJP leader had been murdered, but he was shot dead before he could file the report.
On EVM tampering, Shuja said the manipulation was not restricted to just the 2014 General Election. He claimed that he and his team had intercepted "signals" emanating from the EVMs used in the 2015 Delhi elections, and that the BJP would have won the polls had they not done this. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won 67 of the 70 Assembly seats in that election.
He also claimed that the BJP would have swept the recent Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had his team not "intercepted the signals" coming from the machines. The saffron party lost the three Hindi heartland states to the Congress amid several reports of EVM tampering or malfunctioning.
But Shuja didn't let the Congress and other parties go scot-free either. He said the Congress, AAP, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party had all shown an interest in hacking the voting machines and that the "Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party had asked if they can do anything (to hack the machines).
"We contacted the Congress, we thought we could help them. AAP wanted to hack the machines to show the world that EVMs are hackable," Shuja said at the press conference.
Before approaching Gauri Lankesh, Shuja claimed he had met a "famous Indian journalist who shouts on TV every night" and tried to bring the EVM tampering to light, but the journalist did not run the story.
Shuja may have triggered another EVM tampering debate in India, but there are questions that need answering.
When was he granted political asylum in the US?
Shuja, who several media outlets referred to as an EVM hacker, was not forthcoming about the details at the press conference, citing the attack on his a few days ago as a reason. He claimed he had asked some people to send him EVMs for the hacking demonstration, but they had backtracked and compromised his location in the US (although this would explain the low lighting during his Skype address and the fact that his face was barely visible).
Why did he wait till the next Lok Sabha elections to come forward with his 2014 claims?
The timing of the press conference does raise suspicion as the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are just around the corner. The allegation that EVMs can definitely be hacked gives Opposition parties fodder to, once again, target the BJP in this regard. While Shuja implicated other parties, too, their counter could be the results of the elections held since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014.
When the press conference was called for an EVM hacking demonstration, why didn't he do just that?
The credibility of his claims does come into question as a result, and Kapil Sibal's presence at the press conference does not help either. At the time of writing, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claimed that Shuja was a contributor for the National Herald, the Congress mouthpiece, further calling into question who Shuja really is and why did he decide to come forward with this information now.
What can the Election Commission do?
As expected, the Election Commission of India did not take lightly to the news. In a statement issued soon after reports emerged from the press conference, the polling authority said it firmly stands by the "empirical facts about the foolproof nature of the ECI EVMs" used in elections in India. While acknowledging that it was "wary of becoming a party to this motivated slugfest", the Election Commission said it was examining what legal action it can take in the matter — should it take action against Shuja or the organiser of the event?
Taking the legal route may not be the best idea in this case. Political parties have accused the ruling party of using its clout to tamper with EVMs since it came to power, and the Election Commission has only maintained that the machines are hack-proof. Neither side has provided proof to support their argument; political parties have not presented any evidence to prove that EVMs were hacked during any elections — first brought up in recent years by BSP chief Mayawati the day the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election results were announced — and neither has the poll panel said or done anything besides claiming that their machines were manufactured under strict scrutiny and were tamper-proof.
Going back to using paper ballots is not the solution to this matter, as political parties have suggested. Not only is it uneconomic and environmentally unfriendly, it is a cumbersome job for polling officers to count the ballots.
A hackathon would be a good idea to put these allegations to rest once and for all. If the Election Commission is this confident about the working of its machines, it should have nothing to worry about.
In fact, the poll panel did call for an EVM challenge in June 2017 after the controversy over their alleged hacking gained ground following the Uttar Pradesh elections. The team of IT experts of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had emerged satisfied after the poll panel's demonstration, but the National Congress Party — the only other outfit to participate in the challenge — was displeased that they were not allowed access to the machines being used. AAP, which was the loudest at the time with its EVM tampering allegations, had refused to participate, calling it a false exercise.
The Election Commission had invited seven recognised national parties and 49 state parties to participate in the EVM challenge, but only two parties had turned up. In this regard, one may ask whether the parties alleging EVM rigging really believed that the machines were being manipulated, or whether it was indeed a "motivated slugfest", as the poll panel described the controversy.
Shuja's allegations have added fuel to the EVM fire — not to mention the BJP's alleged use of force to silence those raising questions about the party. The political blame game has already begun — and is unlikely to end till much after the Lok Sabha elections — with the BJP leveraging Sibal's presence at Shuja's press conference and the Congress claiming vindication that it's embarrassing loss in the 2014 wasn't a loss for the party but only a win for the BJP's game of dirty politics.
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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2019 14:59:04 IST