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.