NEW DELHI: The controversy over the inviolability of electronic voting machines (EVMs) peaked as counting day loomed, with 22 opposition parties taking their complaints to the Election Commission (EC) and former president Pranab Mukherjee making a surprise intervention to wade into political waters.

Just two days before the counting of votes takes place for the 2019 general elections, opposition political parties on Tuesday demanded that voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) slips be counted along with EVM figures in the entire assembly constituency in case a discrepancy is found in any polling booth.

Their complaint appeared to have found a powerful backer in Mukherjee, who issued a four-paragraph statement expressing his concern at reports of EVM tampering and placing the responsibility of clearing doubts with the “workmen" of EC.

“I am concerned at the reports of alleged tampering of voters’ verdict. The safety and security of EVMs which are in the custody of ECI is the responsibility of the commission," the former president said.

“There can be no room for speculation that challenges the very basis of our democracy. People’s mandate is sacrosanct and has to be above any iota of reasonable doubt.

“A firm believer in our institutions, it is my considered opinion that it is the ‘workmen’ who decide how the institutional ‘tools’ perform.

“The onus of ensuring institutional integrity, in this case, lies with the Election Commission of India. They must do so and put all speculation to rest."

During the day, representatives of 22 political parties met at the Constitution Club in New Delhi before going to EC. They said that although they had been repeatedly raising their concerns for more than a month, EC officials had so far failed to take any action.

Among the policial parties that took part in the meeting were senior leaders of the Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Telugu Desam Party, Trinamool Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (Secular), Nationalist Congress Party and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

“Twenty-two political parties representing 75% of voters met. There are reports that EVMs are being moved and many EVMs were not working on the day of polling. EC has said that they will meet to discuss our concerns on Wednesday and take a decision," said Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

The parties demanded that VVPAT slips be counted along with EVM figures before counting of votes began on Thursday.

“All five VVPATs should be counted first and in the beginning. Former president has also spoken about it. We do not want the mandate of the people to be manipulated," said N. Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and leader of the Telugu Desam Party.

The opposition meeting is also being seen as a show of strength before the counting of votes.

Opposition parties are hopeful of securing a chance at government formation if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not perform well and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) falls short of the halfway mark.

On its part, EC reiterated that EVMs were foolproof and kept in strongrooms before counting.

“Certain complaints of alleged movement of EVMs, purportedly to replace the polled EVMs in the strongrooms, have been doing the rounds in sections of media. Election Commission of India would like to emphatically and unambiguously clarify that all such reports and allegations are absolutely false and factually incorrect. The visuals seen viral on media do not pertain to any EVMs used during the polls," EC said in a statement.

It said after the close of polls on Sunday that all polled EVMs and VVPATs were brought under security cover to the strongrooms, which were sealed with double locks, in the presence of the candidates and EC observers.

“The aspersions in clips being used in media merely pertain to the storage or movement of reserve unused EVMs," said EC.

“However, any case of lapse even in the handling of reserve EVMs is thoroughly investigated and disciplinary action taken against the officers responsible."

The BJP said opposition parties were desperately seeking an excuse for their impending defeat.

“When they win, as they did in state polls recently, EVMs are trustworthy. But when they lose, they become questionable. Their selective trust in the EVMs is hypocritical and mischievous. Their blatant effort at rubbishing the predicted pro-BJP mandate is an insult to the Indian democracy. The opposition parties look very small not only in their defeat but in their condemnable conduct," said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, national spokesperson of BJP.

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