The Election Commission (EC) has announced an “open challenge”. In the first week of May, for a period of 10 days, the EC will let political parties, experts and any other interested party see if they can hack or in any way tamper with an electronic voting machine (EVM).
The exact details of how this will take place, and how potential hackers will be enrolled, has not yet been made clear. But a report in this newspaper suggests that all these modalities will soon be announced by the EC’s “technical expert committee on EVMs”.
This writer is very excited by this development.
Read the works of any historian for any length of time and you will soon realize that they repeatedly go back to the same themes and ideas in their works. In much the same way that comedians like to crack their most popular jokes over and over again.
Thus, long-time readers will excuse my tendency to repeatedly go back to the founding period of this republic with misty-eyed admiration. Previously in this column I have referred to the constituent assembly debates and the Constitution itself as the high watermark of Indian political achievement (it was also perhaps the high watermark of Indian political ambition and optimism).
Similarly, the first Lok Sabha election of 1951-52 marks a high watermark in the history of Indian bureaucratic achievement. Indeed, you could argue that those polls were an even greater achievement for the young republic than the Constitution. After all, the constituent assembly debates were merely a matter of getting several dozen seasoned politicians to not murder each other. Usually in a hall in Delhi.
The first elections in independent India, on the other hand, were epic in every sense of the word. It is hard to realize today how remarkable it was for a country like India to adopt the concept of universal adult suffrage in 1951. In one fell swoop, one of the youngest, poorest countries in the world had handed its men and women democratic agency to an extent that had taken other, far more established nations decades to roll out.
Adult suffrage had been one of the rallying cries of the freedom movement for around three decades preceding the drafting of the Constitution. The lingering question, if at all it was raised, was how “universal” this franchise had to be. Two problems appear to have bothered members of the constituent assembly the most. Firstly, should the vote be restricted to literate electors? They worried about this aloud and then let it rest. And secondly, what would this sudden expansion of democratic opportunity mean in terms of enthusiasm, participation and logistics?
After all, even the most “politically mature” of the provinces in British India only extended the vote to less than 20% of all adults. What would happen when millions upon millions of adults suddenly found they had a vote? Would they exercise it properly? Would they just give it away to the highest bidder or loudest demagogue? (The Indian state has always had a nanny tendency from the earliest days.)
Despite all these misgivings, universal adult suffrage was written into the Constitution. And rightly celebrated once it was.
“In spite of the ignorance and illiteracy of the large mass of the Indian people,” Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer of the constituent assembly said in November 1949, “the Assembly has adopted the principle of adult franchise with an abundant faith in the common man and the ultimate success of democratic rule and in the full belief that the introduction of democratic government on the basis of adult suffrage will bring enlightenment and promote the well-being, the standard of life, the comfort and the decent living of the common man. The principle of adult suffrage was adopted in no lighthearted mood but with the full realisation of its implications.”
All this rhetoric would have come to nought if the first election commissioner, Sukumar Sen, and his army of bureaucrats, civil servants and volunteers had failed in pulling off the first Lok Sabha election in 1951-52. In fact, the story of how those polls were organized, one that Ramachandra Guha briefly tells in his book India After Gandhi: The History Of The World’s Largest Democracy, is mindblowing. And even a little moving. It is hard to not get a lump in the throat when reading of Sen asking for the Godrej & Boyce ballot boxes to be quickly returned to the Election Commission after the polls. You see, the poor republic didn’t have the funds to order fresh boxes in five years’ time.
So what does all this have to do with EVM hacking? The Indian republic is, doctrinally, founded upon its Constitution. But it draws all its practical strength from the one great institution of the Indian democracy: the election. Indeed the Indian election is not flawless but it is no doubt the least compromised, and least compromising, of all its institutions. The average citizen has more trust in his vote then he does in the courts, the police, the bureaucracy and even the legislatures arising out of his votes.
Thus, while the controversy around EVM hacking may be the outcome of petty political opportunism, on no account must the controversy be allowed to fester. It will be tempting to laugh off the allegations and counter-allegations. But trust is a volatile currency. And to undermine trust in the Election Commission is to hit the republic where it can hurt most. Thus, when the EC throws open EVMs to hacking next month, stepping up to the challenge is vital. The future of the republic depends on it.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview