Ashok Lavasa’s dissent adds ballast to Opposition’s attacks on EC, heralds dark days for democracy

On the face of it, the raking up of a tired and retired EVM controversy seems frivolous another desperate attempt by a nervous Opposition to whip up an excuse for their impending defeat. The allegations are so baseless, hypocritical and laughable that they are not even worthy of a measured response. A big yawn should suffice.

On the face of it, the brouhaha surrounding a “dissenting” Election Commissioner seems unrelated to the ongoing spectacle of Lok Sabha polls. It sounds too academic and esoteric for the poll-time rough and tumble. And yet, these two controversies are related and their impact could be deeper than is readily apparent. These manufactured rows could raise doubt over the sanctity of India’s electoral process.

 Ashok Lavasa’s dissent adds ballast to Opposition’s attacks on EC, heralds dark days for democracy

File image of Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa. Image courtesy PIB

On the first charge, a lot has been written about how introduction of electronic voting machines (EVMs) has dramatically improved voter participation in electoral process, empowered the vulnerable sections (women, elderly, scheduled castes and tribes), and made for freer and fairer elections.

Scholars have noted in data-driven analysis how EVMs have made elections more transparent “competitive and less likely to be manipulated by parties in power” and compared to paper ballots, which Opposition is clamouring for, how EVMs have led to “significant decline in electoral fraud.”

As far as ‘manipulation of EVMs’ is concerned, another fake charge unsupported by proof, domain experts have stressed that the standalone machines used by the Election Commission of India are safe, secure and “cannot be tampered with.”  Experts have explained in analytical ‘deep dives’ why “hacking” of EVMs is a theoretically possibility but practically impossible.

As far as the current controversy over movement of EVMs and their security post elections are concerned, the Election Commission has rebutted each and every charge. On Opposition’s allegations that EVMs were being “swapped” in strongrooms and boxes were travelling “unaccompanied by security forces”, the poll panel has said these charges are “frivolous” and “baseless”.

The problem, however, is that refuting of bogus allegations and busting of fake news takes time, and by the time the EC can probe the charges and issue an appropriate response, the unverified charges travel far and wide through mainstream and social media. In their use of media in amplifying the noise, the Opposition’s multiple accusations against the EC resemble targeted attacks in cyber domain where hackers use multiple compromised systems to flood the servers of a website causing disruption in its services. In cyber security parlance, such attacks are called distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.

The Congress-led Opposition, which seems to have been jolted by the exit poll predictions, are carrying out a DDoS attack against the EC.

While one set of allegations are being refuted, another set of phony charges are being levelled from another forum. The Supreme Court, for instance, threw out a PIL on Tuesday that sought 100 percent matching of voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) slips with EVMs during the counting process on Thursday.

The SC clarified that a CJI-led bench had already dealt with the issue, called it “nonsense”, and observed that “we would not entertain such a plea over and over again… can’t come in the way of people electing their representatives. Let the country elect its government.”

Earlier this month, the SC dismissed a review plea filed by leaders of 22 Opposition parties to hike the random matching of VVPAT slips with EVMs to 50 percent. Even as the SC is being kept busy on this front, the Opposition started building pressure on the EC to change the established counting process. As many as 22 Opposition parties submitted a memo to the poll panel demanding that matching of VVPAT slips with EVMs in random polling booths should be done “before” the counting begins and not “after” the completion of last round of counting, as is the norm. The three-member EC, on Wednesday, rejected the demand for last-minute changes.

It is worth noting how the scope and scale of the attacks against the EC is changing and escalating. From charges of ‘manipulation’, ‘tampering’, to loss of security for EVMs to demanding last-minute changes in counting process, the idea is to create confusion over electoral process and cast aspersion against EC, the constitutional, autonomous body in charge of conducting free and fair elections.

What may the Opposition gain by targeting the EC? These cynical charges and random demands are meant to undermine the EC’s authority and show it as a pliable authority working under the influence of the ruling party. Worth noting again that various political parties led by Congress have already started raising questions against EC’s neutrality as an umpire.

The stated aim of these parties — which were silent when Congress won the elections in three states in last December’s Assembly polls — is to malign the election process so that doubts can be raised on the veracity of the results on 23 May leading to (or so the Opposition hopes) invalidation of Lok Sabha results. Such an eventuality, though remote, would be deleterious to the democratic process of India. Despite bitterly fought elections, Indian democracy has stood the test of time and defined skeptics because the parties ultimately accept the verdict handed out by the electorate.

This new trend militates against that basic trait and puts in danger the sanctity of Indian democratic process.

Along with these attacks from outside the institution, the EC seems to have been subjected to attacks from within. The “dissent” by Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa is untimely and sad because it adds ballast to the charges faced by the EC and seemingly reinforces the notion that the constitutional body is “opaque” and “unfair”.

At a conceptual level, there is nothing wrong with Lavasa’s demand for making dissenting notes public. However, to defy an established process and go against the rules and conventions during the holding of elections cannot be endorsed. The process of adjudication cannot change midway, neither can the rules of a game change while a match is under way.

Lavasa’s “dissent” is ultimately against convention. Usual practice holds that Model Code of Conduct (MCC) disputes won’t be recorded in final order and will only be included in internal files. The EC, in a 2:1 decision during a full-body meeting, decided to continue with the practice. EC’s move has legal backing.

According to SK Mendiratta, quoted by an article in The Hindu, a legal advisor to the EC who has worked with the poll panel for over five decades, the MCC dissent note is recorded only in files and not in the order which carries the majority view. Only on quasi-judicial matters is the dissenting ruling made part of the order, for example in disputes related to the Representation of the People Act and election symbols.

What, therefore, explains Lavasa’s move to suddenly demand a change in convention?

Questions must also be raised on why Lavasa is demanding a change now, and not in earlier instances during MCC violations. Since Lavasa talks about “minority rights” it is pertinent to ask was there “dissent” in earlier instances too. To frame the demand that is not in consonance with established practice and rules and colour it as “dissent” seems to be a political move, that adds to the politicisation of the electoral process and further undermines the inviolability of EC’s authority.

Lavasa is a 1980-batch Haryana cadre IAS officer who served as joint secretary in Union home ministry during P Chidambaram’s tenure. Lavasa and his family’s proximity with Congress leaders have been variously noted.  It will be a sad day for Indian democracy if institutions are attacked from both within and without. The aim of such attacks is to weaken the institutions and reinforce the narrative that such weakening is coinciding with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure at Centre.

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Updated Date: May 22, 2019 18:01:52 IST