Kapil Sibal lends London 'hackathon' undeserved gravitas, gives BJP opportunity to corner Congress on EVMs

  • The mysterious “expert”, ostensibly based in the US, identified himself as Syed Shuja.

  • The point isn’t whether EVMs “can” be hacked.

  • Shekhar Gupta called the conference not just “underwhelming”, but “insulting to anybody not smoking illegal stuff”

At a news conference in London, a self-proclaimed “cyber expert” claimed on Monday that all Indian elections since 2014 Lok Sabha were either rigged or were subjected to attempted rigging through “hacked” electronic voting machines (EVMs). The mysterious “expert”, ostensibly based in the US, identified himself as Syed Shuja. He attended the London press conference via video conference. He seemed to be speaking from a dimly lit room and his face was covered by a mask. He also threw murders into the mystery and claimed that not only did he survive an assassination attempt, his team members were killed and former BJP leader Gopinath Munde was murdered in this connection. Gauri Lankesh’s murder is also apparently linked to “hacked” EVMs, he claimed.

The invite for the press conference, billed as a “hackathon”, reportedly promised that the “hacker” would demonstrate how the EVMs used in Indian elections can be hacked and rigged. No such demonstration took place. Shuja also failed to substantiate any of his claims. Shuja’s claims could have been the subject of a racy pulp fiction, but even fans of racy pulp fiction may agree that this ‘art form’ goes higher. It is induced by something quite powerful.

 Kapil Sibal lends London hackathon undeserved gravitas, gives BJP opportunity to corner Congress on EVMs

File image of Congress leader Kapil Sibal. PTI

Journalist Shekhar Gupta called the EVM press conference not just “underwhelming”, but “insulting to anybody not smoking illegal stuff”. Shuja’s outlandish claims — for which he provided no proof — takes the discussion around EVMs from the realm of rationality to the arena of meth-fuelled conspiracy theories such as the George Bush administration “staged” the 9/11 attacks.

The Election Commission of India (ECI)` — which the “hacker” claimed was involved in the elaborate conspiracy — has taken a grim view of the incident and has initiated legal proceedings. The ECI need not get angry. Whoever the “hacker” was, or whatever his motivation, his loony charges have reduced EVM opposition to a farce and strengthened the case for it. Yesterday’s absurdity has served to reinforce the notion that anti-EVM protests lack credibility. If all polls from 2014 to 2018 were rigged, it implies that BJP somehow influenced the ECI to rig polls in its favour while in Opposition, and then failed to ensure that it retained three crucial states in 2018 while in power. This is potent stuff!

The “hacker” claimed BJP rigged the 2014 elections through the help of a telecom giant that provided the party with “low-frequency signals” to hack the EVMs. That telecom giant was not operational in 2014. It launched telecom services more than two years later.

The “hacker” also claimed that Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi election results were also rigged, and accused the BJP of using a modulator to transmit “military-grade frequency.” Shuja’s team apparently managed to “intercept the transmission” during Delhi 2015 polls and “changed the frequency to favour AAP,” he said.

These fantastical conspiracy theories need no refutation, but some brave souls tried nevertheless.

Fact-checking website Alt News founder Pratik Sinha wrote on Twitter that the hacker’s theory was an impossibility.

The ECI has sent a detailed response refuting all charges. Calling it a “motivated slug fest”, the commission stressed that it “firmly stands by the empirical facts about foolproof nature of ECI EVMs deployed in elections in India.”

The point isn’t whether EVMs “can” be hacked. Voting machines are by definition machines and can be tampered with under specific circumstances. The real question is whether it is feasible to do so, and if we should revert to paper ballots, as some Opposition parties, including the Congress, have demanded.

There have been serious discussions on the subject. A 2009 piece published in Pragati magazine (reproduced by Firstpost with permission) pointed out that the scale of Indian elections is such that “it will take an army of highly-motivated, centrally mobilised, but constituency co-ordinated, election-riggers to influence the outcome at even one constituency. Deploying such an army would reduce to zero the chances of keeping everything completely secret.”

It is useful to remember that this piece was written in 2009, and the ECI has since added more security features to make the machines even less vulnerable to tampering. On whether or not we should revert to paper ballots instead of EVMs, a 2017 study by Shamika Ravi, Sisir Debnath, and Mudit Kapoor in Brookings pointed out that “introductions of EVMs led to a significant decline in electoral fraud… strengthened the weaker and the vulnerable sections of the society… made the electoral process more competitive… and (led to) significant decline in crimes, such as murder and rape (violence against women).”

Shuja’s allegation of mass EVM rigging may appear unfounded and ludicrous, but it does have a deleterious effect on Indian democracy. The space for uncertainty and distrust in India’s electoral process is created when its sanctity is put under scrutiny — albeit through outlandish charges — from foreign shores. Delegitimising of elections, or even any attempts at doing so, is a highly irresponsible act in absence of any proof, convincing or otherwise.

It may prove damaging to the Congress that its senior leader was at the venue. It lent a gravitas and seriousness to the proceedings that the event didn’t deserve. Sibal’s move also raises the question whether the Congress endorses such wild conspiracy theories that seek to delegitimise the electoral process and undermines India’s democracy.

An embarrassed Congress claimed Sibal was there in his “personal capacity” and did not represent the Congress. It is too convenient an argument, much like the one Congress made when a youth Congress leader appeared for extradited arms dealer Christian Michel in a CBI court. Such plausible deniability of “personal capacity” doesn’t really work when the issue involved Congress and Indian politics.

Interestingly, the press conference in London was organised by the Indian Journalists’ Association (Europe). Its president is Asish Ray who was reportedly the man behind an event attended by Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. Union IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Tuesday alleged in a press conference that Ray “was a dedicated Congressman, sponsored a trip made by Rahul to London, and was an active contributor to the National Herald newspaper.” It is not clear whether Prasad referred to this article in National Herald written by Ray  where he heaped fulsome praise on the Congress president for his “unscripted Mann Ki Baat in London”.

Be that as it may, Sibal’s presence at an event where unsubstantiated and fantastical allegations were levelled against India’s electoral process — conducted by a constitutional body with some degree of competence — may be tantamount to Congress shooting itself in the foot. Sensing an opportunity, the BJP is already upping the ante, and claiming the Congress is trying to create an alibi for its impending defeat. The entire tamasha also reflects poorly on the media, which gave blanket coverage and free publicity to the bizarre event without even a modicum of due diligence.

Updated Date: Jan 22, 2019 16:51:39 IST