Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Can an Election be stolen?

The live demonstration in the Delhi Assembly last week of how an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) could be tampered made tangible and credible a threat that most of us thought to be a conspiracy theory muttered by losing parties after an election defeat. Now before I go forward let me underline that despite great doubt and suspicion we have no evidence that EVMs were tampered in the recent assembly elections, and with the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) current posture I doubt it will ever rise above the level of suspicion and doubt. I’m not writing this piece about what might have happened in the past but the possible vulnerabilities our electoral process currently faces now that we know EVMs can be tampered in order to manipulate the vote tally by such stealth that no election official from the high and mighty Chief Election Commissioner all the way down to poll booth officials would even be aware of it.

I am a novelist, a political novelist to be specific, and in my novels I try to construct credible political scenarios for India in a parallel universe, similar to ours but not quite. Let’s create another parallel universe now where, to make it interesting, suppose that Arvind Kejriwal is Prime Minister of India. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking, but this is my creation and you don’t get a vote! Now let’s say Prime Minister Arvind Kejriwal, drunk with power and hubris as all PM’s become sooner or later, makes use of his considerable knowledge about EVMs and orders his aides in the PMO to do whatever is required to tamper EVMs in order to insure electoral success for the conceivable future. Could the PMO pull it off? Possibly. How? Keep reading.

The two PSUs that manufacture EVMs are Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), which comes under the Defence Ministry, and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL), which comes under the Department of Atomic Energy whose minister is the PM himself. Chief executives of PSUs are not generally known to ask too many questions when orders come down from the PMO, and even if some brave soul did show some spine the PMO could appoint a new CMD to either PSU in the blink of an eye.

There would be no need for the PMO to interfere at the level of manufacturing the EVMs which would require the involvement of more people in the conspiracy and an unnecessary risk. In between election cycles the EVMs undergo maintenance in their storage facilities across the country, for which BEL and ECIL are responsible. But the story is not quite that straightforward. Let me allow GVL Narasimha Rao, renowned for his expertise on EVMs and also incidentally a ubiquitous BJP leader/spokesman, explain in his own words taken in full from a Rediff interview in March 2014: 

“To begin with every EVM needs to be kept in a secure environment so that it is cannot be tampered with. However, what we had found is that these machines were dumped in an open yard which made it vulnerable to tampering. As a result of dumping these machines in the open, many had gone missing and the ECI has not yet revealed these details to us. The most important part of this machine is the chip, which contains the source code. We suggested that since these machines were kept in the open, it would be advisable to at least change the chip. These chips cost not more than Rs 100 each.

“The other suggestion that we made and was not taken was regarding the maintenance of the machines. These machines are manufactured by Bharat Electronics Limited and Electronics Corporation of India. These companies send engineers to carry out a maintenance check or a first level check. Shockingly, these are not employees of the above mentioned two companies. They are agents hired on a contract basis and they conduct the inspection of these machines before the elections. We suggested that the job of the first level check be given to the National Informatics Centre so that the person doing the job has accountability. We had pointed out that some of these persons who were hired to conduct this check belonged to software companies that were being run by politicians. The chances of tampering are higher in such cases. However, the ECI did not agree with us. The problem is that there is a leap of blind faith in technology and the ECI blindly trusts everything that the manufacturer does. We have always pointed out that elections cannot be based on trust.”

Quite an indictment of our electoral process by Shri Rao. So all the PMO would have to do is nudge the two PSUs to give EVM maintenance contracts to private entities of their choosing and over time these engineers would have access to an ever increasing percentage of the EVMs and do as they wish with machines. I’m informed that changing the motherboard of the EVM, which contains the chip, would take no more than a minute. Not that these engineers would be in any hurry, since they would be legitimately doing their jobs and have no time limitation. The Election Commission would be utterly oblivious to what was going on. They would seal and lock the EVMs shortly before the next round of elections without the slightest clues that the EVMs had been tampered and done so through routine maintenance that they themselves had sanctioned. Election Commission would genuinely keep parroting that “our EVMs cannot be tampered” and do so while fully believing it.

After this on polling day the ruling party would send their people, as bona fide voters, to the polling booths with the tampered EVMs and the deed would be done, whether by punching in a code, as demonstrated in the Delhi Assembly, or even by sending a signal from a mobile phone to the EVM if the tampering is of a higher order. The EVMs that seemed normal up till this point would thereafter start manipulating the vote tally as instructed. For a more detailed explanation read this eye-opening interview with Professor Poorvi Vora of George Washington University in The Hindu.

I admit I have oversimplified the scenario slightly for the benefit of coherence because in addition to the actual tampering getting the tampered EVMs positioned in polling booths likely to give maximum electoral advantage would require some manipulation at the level of the Election Commission. But I have little doubt our Prime Minister Arvind Kejriwal, sneaky little fellow that he is, would be able in due course to appoint Election Commissioners owing loyalty to him and the Election Commission would become suitably pliant. And in the meantime if any EVMs ‘malfunctioned’, having been observed voting only for the ruling party, they would be whisked away by the Election Commission before any neutral experts could run diagnostics on them. If opposition parties ever raised genuine objections about EVMs the Election Commission would refuse to hold a proper hackathon and instead agree to a ‘challenge’ where experts would be expected to hack the EVMs using extra-sensory powers because they would actually be forbidden from touching the EVMs. All this while, the credibility of EVMs was increasingly questioned in other continents like Africa to where they were exported.

This is all hypothetical, of course, I’m sure the current government would never be as underhanded as the fictional Prime Minster Kejriwal in my scenario. But my point is a larger one, that when the Election Commission is blind to advances in technology and leaves loopholes in its processes that any ruling party can feasibly take full advantage of, the Election Commission is letting us all down, because no Prime Minister ever attained his high office and no ruling party ever won a general election by following their sense of fair play. Going forward we are told that VVPAT EVMs which leave a paper trail will put all doubts to end. At the same time we now hear of this magic cable that can be used to connect the ballot unit and the control unit of an EVM and thereafter manipulate the vote tally without having to tamper with the EVM’s circuitry at all. If you build it, someone will hack it. As I sit writing this piece, computer systems across the world are reeling from the worst ever hack in the form of a ransomware attack. That’s the world we live in today while the Election Commission is living in denial.

I’ll leave it for you to decide whether the scenario I described above is feasible. But I must conclude with due apologies to the real life Arvind Kejriwal who was the driving force behind the EVM tampering demonstration in the Delhi Assembly, overcoming many naysayers and who, I assure you, is not a sneaky little fellow at all.

Monday, 13 March 2017

AAP's Punjab post-mortem...

The problem with most post-election analyses is that suddenly the victor is said to have done everything with omniscient perfection and the defeated party’s campaign is described as a total train-wreck. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) got the benefit of this phenomenon after it swept to victory in Delhi two years ago and now it is feeling the bitter end of the equation after being vanquished by the Congress Party in Punjab. AAP got it badly wrong. And, yes, I got it badly wrong as well. No AAP tsunami materialised this time despite my prediction, quite the reverse in fact. You have every reason to demand an explanation for how this miscalculation happened. Let’s begin the post-mortem.

In mid-January of 2016 all the main political parties were assembled en masse in the city of Muktsar in the Malwa heartland of Punjab to hold rallies on the day of the Maghi Mela. It was an annual ritual but this was the day AAP announced its presence as a serious player in the state with a massive show of force. The Congress had made the mistake of holding its rally too close to the AAP rally and found that people arriving on their buses were herding to hear Kejriwal speak instead. The Congress pandal was naturally rendered quite empty. The shrewder Akalis had anticipated this eventuality and held their rally at a comfortable distance away. What followed, as recounted to me by a senior Congress leader, was that newly minted Punjab Congress President, Captain Amarinder Singh, accompanied by the entire state leadership of the party had arrived in the area but did not dare show up at the still largely empty rally site. While emergency measures were taken to fill the rally with people Amarinder Singh and his entourage decided to take shelter in the house of an unsuspecting farmer in a nearby field. Two MLAs were dispatched to record the AAP rally. Until this point Amarinder had considered AAP’s surprise victories in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as a fluke, but after suffering this indignity I imagine he had a re-think. Despite what he may have said in public it was clear from his actions thereafter that the Captain now believed AAP would be his main adversary in the upcoming campaign. An SOS went out for Prashant Kishor. 

Shortly after the Maghi Mela rallies I met AAP’s campaign manager Durgesh Pathak for the first time. After I got past the fact that he was so young he looked like he must have been barely out of college I quickly realised that underneath the youthful fa├žade lay a hardcore political operative who knew exactly what he was doing and had travelled to every corner of Punjab in the previous six months. He was also very clear that the only man who could stop AAP from victory in Punjab was Amarinder Singh. Battle lines had been drawn.

It is unnecessary to recount the entire course of the campaign over the last year in great detail. While AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann unleashed an onslaught on the Badals the Congress was trying to get its house in order with Prashant Kishor and his team overseeing the operation. Until, of course, Sardar Chhotepur was removed as the convener of AAP Punjab and civil war ensued for a few weeks with charges being flung from all directions. Amarinder took full advantage of this period of turbulence for AAP. But the tide soon reversed again when it seemed the entire leadership of Punjab Congress was stranded in Delhi for weeks as the high command took forever to decide on their list of candidates. While AAP campaigned relentlessly before the announcement of elections it seemed Congress had left it till too late by giving some of their candidates as little as two or three weeks before the election. But the Congress had a trump card to play in the end and that was the entry of Navjot Singh Sidhu as a candidate from Amritsar. The pictures of Amarinder and Sidhu smiling and chatting together at their press conference was very effective and major setback for AAP.

In the last forty-eight hours since the election results a flurry of newspaper articles have been postulating a myriad of reasons why AAP electorally under-performed. Let me try and address some of them. It is true the Hindu and urban vote coalesced behind the Congress, but they were traditional Congress voters who had drifted to the BJP for the last decade and were now coming home anyway. Though, I must admit, even as a Sikh, the excessive religiosity of the AAP campaign made me distinctly uncomfortable at times and the mysterious bomb blast in Bathinda on the eve of voting fed into the unhelpful narrative of AAP consorting with extremists. The inability of AAP to clinch a deal with Sidhu was a missed opportunity, certainly, because he could have provided a pan-Punjab face that the party sorely required, but agreeing to his demands would have almost certainly led to the exodus of at least two senior leaders, thus making the entire exercise self-defeating. Then there was the ever-present bogey of the threat posed by outsiders from Delhi remote controlling AAP’s Punjab unit, all the while Congress leaders were sitting in Delhi for weeks on end to find out if they made the cut in the candidate list approved by the Gandhis. Of course, there is a kernel of truth to all these observations by the media but I am not convinced they were decisive in causing voters finally backing the Congress.

AAP’s success in the state during the 2014 Lok Sabha election also has to be properly understood. At the time AAP represented everything to everyone and provided the perfect vehicle for a protest vote across central and eastern Malwa, a region known for its rebellious streak. By the time Sanjay Singh and Durgesh Pathak were deputed to the state in the wake of the expulsions of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan the state unit was in complete anarchy, with at least two of the four Members of Parliament in open revolt. It took them six months just to calm everything down and start building anything resembling a party organisation that could compete against the Congress and the Akalis. By the time the election came along AAP had never really garnered much support in Majha and only lukewarm support in Doaba, thus staking it all in sweeping the Malwa heartland. To sweep Malwa AAP was reliant on Akali Dal suffering a complete meltdown, something I expected given the environment of strong anti-incumbency, but surprisingly they managed to maintain their 2014 performance and Congress took full advantage of the three-way split in the region. 

So you could reasonably posit that the 2014 AAP surge was an ephemeral occurrence caused by voter anger at both a deeply unpopular UPA Govt at the Centre and equally unpopular Badal Government in Chandigarh. In the Punjab assembly campaign as AAP made its stand clear on issues and stated its preferred policies it now asked voters to look at it from the perspective of a government-in-waiting and not just a faceless vehicle for protest votes. This change of perspective form the point of view of voters provided the crux of how this election was decided. The question voters needed to decide on was if AAP was ready to rule Punjab.

The turbulence in Delhi between the Centre and Delhi Governments may have earned some sympathy for AAP amongst younger voters but also may have worried risk-averse and older voters who feared Punjab’s interests would pay the price in the clash between the Prime Minister and Chief Minister of Delhi. Then there was the lack of a Chief Ministerial candidate when faced with Amarinder Singh who was unlike any leader AAP had faced so far because he fits the profile of a powerful regional satrap who has absolutely no national ambitions beyond the state and played the sympathy card of this being his last election to the hilt.

AAP was successful in convincing voters of Punjab that it would jail Majithia, that it would safeguard the holy scriptures against sacrilege, that it would import its successful educational and health policies from Delhi, that NRIs would never have it so good, and it would launch a war on drugs. But in the end none of those things mattered. Punjab voters looked at the line-up of AAP candidates, most political newcomers with little or no government experience, and could not visualise a Government-in-Waiting. They looked at Captain Amarinder Singh and saw a safe pair of hands, past his prime and flawed though he might be. End of story.

As the main opposition party in the Punjab legislative assembly the twenty-two AAP MLAs, as well as the larger party organisation, will have five years to prove to voters that they are indeed ready to govern. They must do this by being a responsible but ever vigilant opposition party. You can rest assured the Congress Government will provide ample opportunity to showcase these qualities. I’ll be keeping a close watch on the antics of the Captain and his durbar too. Stay tuned.  


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Spotting AAP's Election Tsunami in Punjab: Umeed & Badlaav (Hope & Change)

It was May of 2014 and I found myself sitting in a crowded TV studio discussing a news channel’s exit poll for the just completed General Election with a couple of days still to go for counting day. As we went from state to state it was becoming painfully obvious, even keeping in mind the unreliability of exit polls, that a Modi wave had swept across northern and western India; ‘a northwest monsoon’ as Rajdeep Sardesai described it. I really did not have much to say as the Modi supporters on the panel crowed with pleasure and rubbed it in. It was not the most pleasant experience. Then came Punjab’s turn and the smug pollster informed us that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) would get wiped out even in a state where it was believed certain to open its account. Apparently the Modi wave had breached Punjab’s defences as well. However, by then I was certain that Bhagwant Mann was sweeping to victory in Sangrur and there was a corresponding groundswell for AAP in the rest of Punjab’s Malwa heartland. AAP would ultimately win four seats and come very close to winning two or three others. Anyway I awoke from my stupor on the show to contradict the pollster and said that I had first-hand knowledge of what was going on in Punjab, it being my home state, and his figures were completely wrong. The pompous pollster informed me that AAP’s much vaunted support in Punjab had been a mirage and that his numbers never lied. I was going to advise him on air about which part of his anatomy he could stick his poll number but for once, thankfully, I chose to keep my own counsel. I’ve never returned to a TV studio since. Life is too short.

My larger point being that pollsters have been unable or unwilling to spot the full extent of AAP’s support in election after election. They labelled AAP as a non-entity in the Delhi elections of 2013, they were oblivious to AAP’s Punjab in 2014, and were made to look completely incompetent by AAP’s Delhi sweep in 2015. If the first couple of polls in 2017 are anything to go by they are set to repeat the pattern in the run-up to next month’s Punjab assembly elections. What is it about AAP’s electoral fortunes that these pollsters have been unable to gauge the true scale of support? You would think the pollsters might undergo a bout of self-scrutiny and adjust their sample and methods to avoid being embarrassed again. Not that they were particularly accurate in Bihar either.

Like clockwork, after the elections were announced last weeks, opinion polls appear throwing cold water on AAP’s Punjab ambitions and all the so-called political experts of Lutyens’ Delhi start proclaiming that AAP is finished in Punjab. They claim AAP peaked too early during the summer, which is funny because these same worthies were claiming AAP was finished during the summer as well. So in the face of such mendacity I have no choice but to state clearly and unequivocally that Punjab voters are going to vote decisively in AAP’s favour on February 4th. In many ways the election is already over. (By the way, I would have much preferred to have continued writing my novel about Nehru instead of this blog, but there seems to be such a disconnect between the perception of the national media and the ground realities of Punjab I felt I had no choice but to break myself away from the joy of recreating the 1928 Calcutta Congress, now forgotten but of immense historical significance.)

So do I believe that all these respected political analysts, pollsters included, are wrong and only I am correct? Am I delusional? Quite possibly. Biased? Undoubtedly, but that need not necessarily cloud my electoral assessment. Being my home state I have a sense of what is going on the ground in Punjab much more so than I ever had during elections in Delhi where I reside. There are certain signs that are now visible as leading indicators of AAP support in Punjab that are perhaps too subtle for pollsters to quantify.

First and most importantly, the crowds turning out day in and day out for AAP campaign events, even for candidate nukkad meetings or jansabhas, across Punjab are stunning to behold. Arvind Kejriwal will attract a crowd anywhere he goes but Bhagwant Mann’s campaign stops in particular are looking more and more impressive, people are turning out in droves and can be seen standing on trucks, hanging out of windows, and standing on rooftops. There is a rock concert feel to them, reminiscent of Delhi in 2015. Don’t believe me, just follow Bhagwant Mann on Facebook or twitter, the pictures are posted daily and they speak for themselves. A Punjab Congress MLA told me the crowds were showing up to hear Mann’s jokes, I told him he should listen carefully to the well-crafted jokes because they were political satire, the most lethal form of political rhetoric, especially so in Punjabi. The AAP campaign machine may not have been the most disciplined to begin with but once it got rolling, as it now has in Punjab, it is relentlessly grinding towards its objective. Hoards of volunteers from India and abroad are being added to the volunteer army in the state every day. They aren’t paid and possess the passion of true believers. This idealism brings an invaluable energy to any campaign. It is a concept alien to campaign strategist Prashant Kishor and his team of bloodless mercenaries who work for the Punjab Congress.

In Punjab much like Delhi you have a highly unpopular incumbent party and an opposition party that lacks energy and is riven with division. The wildcard is obviously Amarinder Singh but he is being repeatedly hampered by Rahul Gandhi and his acolytes in the Punjab Congress. It is common knowledge that Amarinder and Rahul don’t trust each other. Rahul knows he needs the Captain to win the election but would like to ultimately anoint somebody else as Chief Minister if they win, which is why he wooed the eccentric Navjot Sidhu so assiduously. Amarinder, of course, knows this and has been using every effort to get as many Akali defectors, presumably loyal to him, Congress tickets as he can despite rumblings of revolt from within Congress ranks. The extended disagreement over the 40 seats with candidates still unannounced is a tussle for power for the post-election scenario. Of course, it has resulted in Punjab Congress top brass camping in Delhi for the last six or seven weeks and no one can remember the last time Amarinder Singh addressed a rally. All the while AAP has been campaigning non-stop from Arvind Kejriwal on downwards. Congress is busy dividing the spoils of a prospective victory while ignoring the battlefield. Rahul Gandhi’s week-long New Year’s sojourn means the Congress campaign will have a little more than three weeks to campaign, assuming they can tamp down the dissension certain to be caused by the announcement of the last 40 seats. With less than a month to go to elections each day that you aren’t campaigning you are losing votes.

Another important point that most commentary are glossing over when it comes to Punjab is the organisational strength that AAP now has on the ground in the state. Between the summers of 2015 and 2016 Sanjay Singh, Durgesh  Pathak and their hard-working team have put into place a party structure that is unmatched, even by the Akalis. They went from village to village, each of which were traditionally divided into Akali or Congress bastions, breaking through the duopoly and winning over allegiances. No easy task, I assure you. The AAP surge in 2014 was largely voter driven, most of whom voted for the jhadu symbol without having even seen AAP leader or volunteer, so much so that even such a lacklustre campaigner as Harinder Khalsa was swept to victory. This time is different, AAP will not only have voter intensity on its side but also a turnout machine, augmented by a comprehensive voter database, the likes of which Punjab has never before seen. There are whole villages that will vote for AAP en masse and signs of this are already becoming clear after the imposition of the model code of conduct as the villages have started putting up signs asking Akali and Congress candidates to save their breath and stay away. The added organisational prowess of the Bains brothers in the crucial seats in and around Ludhiana is fast turning what was once a closely-fought battleground into a one-sided sweep.

But the closing weeks of the campaign will matter as always and AAP must reduce its accusatory rhetoric to a minimum, concentrating on a positive message to rev up its base and attract the undecided voter. On the day the elections were announced last week Arvind Kejriwal voiced a message of ‘umeed’ and ‘badlaav’, hope and change, which should form the bedrock of AAP’s closing message to Punjab’s voters who are ready for change after ten years of misgovernance and loot. Those voters still in the undecided column are most likely to be either Akali voters ready to defect after the Badal family’s wholesale takeover of the party or urban Hindu voters fed up with the dysfunctional state BJP unit, with demonetisation only increasing the migration away. These late-deciding voters have been anti-Congress voters for a decade and therefore likely to break towards AAP in large proportion. Because of its divisive history in the state there is a defined ceiling to the Congress vote-share, and that is why their biggest fear is an Akali electoral meltdown, something that is looking increasingly likely. Whereas AAP as the new party can poach undecided voters from a wider basket without any past mistakes to impede their message of real change.

These remaining undecided voters are the same voters that won the state for an Amarinder-led Congress in 2002, but that was then and Amarinder had returned home to the Congress and brought a sense of hope and change in his wake that he subsequently betrayed with a lazy and distant leadership style, surrounding himself with a durbar and unable to control his family. He lost his second chance at Chief Ministership ten years later in 2012 when the same great pollsters predicted an almost certain Congress victory and caused the erstwhile Maharaja to take his campaigning duties lightly. Badals eked out an upset victory and Punjab has been paying the consequences ever since. There is little doubt that without Amarinder the Punjab Congress would have little to no chance. He is desperate for one last stint of power, not to change Punjab politics for the better but to safeguard the status quo and his own interests. After all, as a military historian he know better than anyone that Rajas and Maharajas historically are rarely catalysts of change, in fact more often than not they are victims of it. Punjab voters are yearning for genuine change, not more of the same in a different package.      

Just before a tsunami strikes the coast the sea recedes from the beach and an eerie calm prevails, though only momentarily and deceptively so. Those standing on the beach may misinterpret this phenomena as intriguing but nothing to be worried about or life-threatening. In Punjab I believe the tsunami is AAP and the clueless sods on the beach are the establishment faced with imminent extinction. On February 4th nature will take its course.

Of course, there’s always the possibility the polls are right and my assessment may prove to be completely wrong, in which case I’ll be the one having to undergo a strenuous bout of self-examination. That’s what I love about elections, in the end the voters cut through the campaign fog of mistruths and decide all our fates. So be it.