Will demonetisation lead to a hi-tech election clash? We'll have to wait and see

Given the commotion within and outside Parliament (some sullen, some outrageous statements, threats and boasts), demonetisation sure has raised considerable political heat. Black money stashes of political parties apparently suffered hits across the board in varying measures; even some chief ministers — including prospective ones — are struggling to hide their frustration, while others are distributing free laptops publicly.

Then you have this spent fellow cackling about the PoK, even though an inquiry into ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits could have nailed him good and proper. There is a rumour that just after 2018, new currency notes of Rs 2,000 denomination may also be withdrawn. Surely, this will hit black money stashes for the 2019 General Election, but given the hint, trust the Indian system of jugaad for alternatives. Besides, foreign donations to political parties have been legalised, so why fret?

How much black money demonetisation will scrap and to what extent it can be regenerated will depend on multiple factors, which the government will have examined, but given the fixation with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, faking new currency notes should not take Pakistan too long. Interestingly, while the government recovered X amount of money from the voluntary income disclosure scheme (IDS) that ended in September 2016, Indonesia reportedly recovered 100 times this amount with a smaller penalty imposed on disclosed amounts.

Will demonetisation lead to a hi-tech election clash? Well have to wait and see

Representational image. Reuters

Economists agree that black money can’t be stamped out completely. The NN Vohra Committee, constituted vide MHA Order No S/7937/SS(ISP)/93 dated 9 July, 1993, had significantly revealed the criminalisation of politics and the nexus between government functionaries and mafias; a major conclusion being that “any leakage whatsoever about the linkages of crime syndicates and senior government functionaries or political leaders in the states or at the Centre could have a destabilising effect on the functioning of the government”.

When the Vohra Committee said that money power is used to develop a network of muscle-power which is also used by the politicians during elections, the reference was not to any particular political party. Corruption obviously is across the board. We may say that a majority of scams occurred between 2004 and 2014, but why are the culprits walking free, some even in Parliament? That’s why a scam like the Tatra Truck Scam is frozen because it ran through many governments. The Vohra Committee also spoke of “pressures exerted whenever corrupt and undesirable officers are shifted from sensitive assignments”, but we have scamsters deserving prosecution nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Live and let live may be a global norm but if the big fish remain untouched, the war against corruption and black money will remain incomplete.

Demonetisation was very much needed albeit the collateral damage due to lack of adequate logistical management, certainly could have been reduced with better planning. Digital India, going cashless and optimal digitisation has much potential in curbing black money and transforming the economy in the long run, even as there is the fear of losing your money with worldwide incidents of hard-earned savings wiped out partially or in full through cyber crimes by individuals and syndicates. India too has had its share of this, some reported, some not.

But the reason for political temperatures going through the roof with demonetisation is the forthcoming slew of elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in 2017 — the exact dates for which are to be announced in January. So the gloves are off. John Lyly said “All is fair in love and war” in his novel Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit in 1579, but politics has preceded love and war since then. And if technology has empowered one and all including non-state actors, it has done so for political parties too. Already, the demonetisation digital war on social media is growing by the day with dedicated teams of political parties trying to outdo their opponents.

But first, considering the considerable cyber prowess of our adversaries, are we building adequate safeguards in our Digital India programs?

Given the stated financial outlays, the answer is no, as it appeared in discussions on the sidelines of an international cyber-security conference. One question being debated was that given our fixation of caste, creed and reservations (the latter has been prolonged by decades in contradiction of what Dr BR Ambedkar wanted), what havoc will it cause if demographic and individual statistics at the state and Centre levels are hacked and ‘changed’?

The manner in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched demonetisation can best be described as a ‘revolution’, not ‘evolution’, and a revolution always causes much turbulence which is absent in the case of evolution. At the same time, demonetisation would also have caused discomfort to some from his own political party, of which he would be acutely aware. It is no secret that when he disbanded the Planning Commission (functioning under the UPA-I and UPA-II) that was pocketing 10 percent of whatever money was sanctioned to states, plenty eyebrows went up — why now when it is our turn?

So let us see dispassionately examine who will want Modi to win a second tenure as Prime Minister of India in 2019:

Pakistan and China? Certainly not
Opposition parties? Most definitely not
Coalition partners? Some may, some won't
His own party? Some may not, no matter the numbers.

File image of Narendra Modi. AP

File image of Narendra Modi. AP

In addition, there will be other internal and external forces inimical to India including those who simply don’t want India to grow beyond a point. China, who wants India boxed in within South Asia, has already referred to Modi’s demonetisation drive as a “gamble”. The simple inference therefore is that multiple methods will be employed by political parties in conjunction their local and foreign benefactor; financial muscle, perception-building and optimising technology etc, but what else?

In a civil appeal No 9093 of 2013 (Arising out of SLP (Civil) No. 13735 of 2012), Dr Subramanian Swamy, the appellant contended that the present system of electronic voting machines (EVMs) did not meet all international standards and although ECI maintains EVMs cannot be tampered with, EVMs like all electronic equipments, are open to hacking. The requirement of a printout apprising the voter of his or her vote was rightly registered, and was to be deposited in a box for use by ECI in case of dispute.

According to the counsel for ECI, apprehension that EVMs could be tampered with were baseless and ECI was exploring possibility of incorporating viable Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system in EVMs to make elections more transparent. The court ruled that the VVPAT is indispensable for free and fair elections and must be introduced in a phased manner. The VVPAT is a printer-like machine that is attached to individual EVMs that allows voters to verify that their vote has been cast correctly.

Whether the VVPAT has been installed in all EVMs is not known. But VVPAT is a separate issue, not very relevant to cyber crime. Symantec Security Response has already demonstrated that EVMs can be hacked by devices that are easy to acquire and cost no more than $16 (~Rs 1,100). Such hacking can be undertaken before the voting or 'after' the voting. While the Hillary Clinton camp accuses Russia of tampering with the recent US Presidential Election, trust our ECI to keep insisting our EVMs are ‘different’ and tamper proof. But guess what professional hackers in India including those who have worked for government have to say about our EVMs?

One, they are highly rudimentary in terms of cyber safety; two, they can be hacked 100 percent and three, they 'have been tampered with' on some occasions in the past.

The above indicates that mass-scale rigging is possible in elections by optimising technology. The government will do well to examine the above issues. Much will be at stake during elections in the six states next year, with a direct bearing on the 2019 General Election.

The author is a veteran Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army

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Updated Date: Nov 28, 2016 12:52:13 IST

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