Large tracts of land, their barrenness broken only by buildings with blocks numbered in ascending but not necessarily sequential manner, form the New Sachivalaya complex in Gandhinagar. Signs, mostly in Gujarati, point towards the offices that house a discreet but ambitious experiment of the state government.
On the ninth floor of the ninth block, the office at the far corner stands out not just by being far or in the corner. What gives it away is the slew of footwear outside—the traditional practice to keep dust out of places with sensitive equipment, and a sure sign that, behind these doors, is at least one sophisticated gadget.
Inside, a long corridor separates two rooms. One holds a server, the other holds a group of youngsters huddled around a few computers in a cramped space. A shifting number of people, between 20 and 30, and including two Spaniards, hunch over laptops on comfortable sofas outside the cramped room; others swipe security cards to enter and exit the locked server room. Three days before the Gujarat government’s polling experiment, the buzz is almost tangible.
Creating infrastructure: Sanat Jethova (left), senior consultant at TCS, inspecting a server room. Vijay Somesh/Mint
The state government—and nobody forgets to mention that this experiment is chief minister Narendra Modi’s brainchild—spent over Rs 30 crore (Rs 15 crore on equipment alone) on an online voting system for the civic elections held on 10 October, in six wards of six municipal councils in the state.
The wards had been chosen based on the number of Internet connections in the area, the numbers being kept low to avoid “blunders”. It was the first experiment of its kind in India, and it had required legislative amendments and encouragement to voters to log in from home before heading off to the local dandiya.
“We wanted to activate the strata of society that’s indifferent to voting,” says K.C. Kapoor, the state election commissioner. “The inhibiting factor is standing in a queue. We are saying: ‘Don’t come. Maintain your dignity. Save your fuel’.”
The ninth floor constitutes what Kapoor, sitting on the sixth floor of the same building, calls a “super booth”—a data centre operated by Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS), which had sought help from Spanish firm Scytel to put systems in place in three months. The mother ship, such as it is, was equipped to handle a thousand simultaneous mouse clicks on voting day.
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Three days before polling, at 6pm, TCS’ Amit Malik races to the sixth floor to get the nod from the State Election Commission (SEC) secretary P.S. Shah, before calling his boss Sanat Jethova, a senior consultant, to tell him that online voter registration can be closed. The final number: 182.
This is the catch: Of the 196,450 voters from these six wards, only 307 forms were received, and an even fewer 182 registered to vote online. Of these 182 voters, 124 voted on 10 October—the others being either unable or unwilling to. Neither SEC nor TCS seemed particularly perturbed with the numbers, and mentioned that the reason was probably just the citizens’ resistance to change.
Jethova explained how TCS set up a “near-foolproof” process. Interested voters had to fill a form with three mandatory pieces of information: their name, cellphone number and email address. Voters could activate their account only from the machine they intended to use on the voting day.
Everyone was given a username and password. On logging in, voters were led to their ballot “papers”. As soon as the voter selected a candidate, he received a pass code on his cellphone via SMS. Once that pass code was entered, the vote was delivered and an encrypted electronic receipt—“like the black mark on your finger”—provided.
Naturally, security was a key concern. The server room was guarded with doors that would open only with a security code. One person familiar with the operations said that the team drew up a security system to prevent Pakistani and Chinese hackers from jamming systems. Select IP addresses were collected from the government’s department of technology, to be blocked.
“At the infrastructure level,” says Jethova, “we have firewalls, intrusion prevention systems, secure socket layer and cryptography to put the vote in the digital form and send it across the Internet. If someone catches data in between, they cannot do anything with it.” The system has the “best available” security, Jethova says, but then he admits, “Nothing is safe—even the twin towers were affected.”
The voters had to “activate” their account to show their intent to cast their votes, which may have been the reason why not all the people who filled out the form went on to vote online. “We sent them an email on 5 October to activate,” says Jethova. “We gave them reminders as well, but this is the number we got.”
On the polling day itself, Jethova says the only thing that could have possibly gone wrong was poor Internet connection at voter residences or bad network on their cellphones. He proceeds to give a quick demo, and the process takes less than three minutes.
Three days later, Nikunj Purshottamdas Darji, a scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation in Ahmedabad, stared at his computer. He could figure out satellites, but this was new. Darji, a resident of Bodakdev, later said he had to download Firefox and some vernacular fonts, but because his Internet connection was slow and the traffic high on the site, it all took him an hour-and-a-half just to install.
“I’m a software engineer, so I managed. For someone else, it may not be easy,” says Darji, who registered because he was plain curious. He now prefers this mode of voting, he says, because it gives him clarity and time to study candidates, unlike in a polling booth.
Nearby, Rajeev Rawal and his wife Trupti faced another problem. After logging in, the next page just would not open. Rawal rushed to the polling booth to complain, and an official there called the helpline number. A rumour circulated that the server was down for three days, but customer care reassured Rawal that all was well. By 1pm, the couple had managed to vote.
“I would do it again,” Rawal, a network engineer at the Gujarat Institute of Developmental Research, says. “It is secure and peaceful, no hassles. Other people should also go for it. I was surprised (there were few takers).”
The government’s aggressive campaign to get people to vote online included not just persistent advertising, but also continuous text messages and calls to voters. On voting day, Darji says he was inundated with messages asking him to vote as soon as possible. At least six people in a family could vote using the same machine, at intervals of 15 minutes, “so your wife cannot see whom you voted for”, says Jethova.
Kapoor says the data centre can be leased to others conducting elections. “All you need is a computer,” he says. “Whether it’s housing societies, sugar factories or chambers of commerce… Wherever there’s an election, they can approach the government.”
The system’s best effect, he notes, would be to strengthen competition among candidates. “This way, if the intelligentsia vote,” he says, “at least they will exercise their minds.”