Sunday 23 April 2017 News Updated at 08:04 AM IST
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Tamper-proof, really? - Deccan Herald
Tamper-proof, really?
Valson Thampu,
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I am not saying that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) are a non-issue. Or that this issue need not be looked into and that the apprehensions in this regard are not dispelled. They need to be, convincingly and conclusively.

No one except a simpleton will believe that technology is tamper-proof. Such a superstition is too ridiculous to be rebutted. What God made - air, water, earth and so on - is not safe from tampering and adulteration, at which human beings are smarter than God. If so, how can what is man-made be safe from the unscrupulosity of man? The Election Commission of India (ECI) would look ridiculous, hence, if it exalts EVMs to the level of infallibility, at a time when even the Pope has shifted this doctrine to the backburner.

The EVMs are a serious issue. But it is not a fundamental issue. Why do I insist on this distinction? A serious issue is something that merits urgent attention. It is resolved when the given cause of malfunctioning is rectified, as it deserves to be. It becomes suspect when anyone insists that symptoms should not be taken note of. Individuals and institutions run the risk of discrediting themselves by being obstinate to this effect.

Serious issues need not, however, be fundamental issues. Serious issues are resolved when the immediate symptom is dealt with and settled. Fundamental issues do not disappear when the given symptom or a set of such symptoms are made to get out of the way. They pertain to basic realities.

What is the function of the EVMs? It is to facilitate voting and counting of the votes cast. If a particular button is pushed and the votes do not go to the intended candidate or party but somewhere else, let's say accidentally or being guided, it makes a mockery of the freedom of choice. It can happen when technology, for reasons known only to itself, assumes a will of its own. As in the case of EVMs, in this instance, an affinity to a particular party is what the mockery is all about.

That tiny machine called the EVM in front you usurps your right to choose. It says, "Press the button, by all means; but leave the choosing to me, you stupid." Every citizen must have the right to be assured that going to a polling booth and pressing the buttons amounts, in truth, to exercising one's franchise. The commendable efforts that the ECI has made in the recent past to mass-base the exercise of franchise will be rendered hollow if EVMs are not taken, transparently, beyond the reach of reasonable suspicion.

The credibility of EVMs should be a priority, first and foremost, to the ECI and then to political parties. The Commission should have acted the moment the first anomaly was reported and not waited till complaints were aired on this matter. Its knee-jerk assertion of the impregnability of EVMs' should have been avoided.

What then is the fundamental and radical issue in the present context? Let's assume that the EVMs are, every one of them, as the EC insists, unerringly reliable, safe from the genius of man to pervert and misuse anything and everything. Does it mean that the votes cast amount, in point of truth, to an exercise in freedom of informed choice?

Fundamental issues

Choice presupposes the capacity to think objectively. The pre-condition for that is the availability of the pros and cons of every issue in a non-partisan, scientific way. It also calls for a capacity to think critically and rationally through the data available.

As of now, there are some fundamental issues that stare us in the face in this regard, which we can only venture to flag for the sake of brevity.

• The current model of education, including higher education, cripples critical thinking. It is custom-designed to promote conformity and intellectual laziness. This puts a premium on populism and opinion-peddling.

• We go by opinions, not by personal responsibility, convictions or conclusions. Our impressions and affinities

are borrowed from external sources. This ensures that even when facts are available (in fact, they are not), they are not utilised for critical thinking and assessment.

• This makes the masses vulnerable to publicity and propaganda. This was startlingly evident in the 2014 elections. The party that manages its propaganda machine most effectively wins the battle. The function of propaganda is to disable thinking and to activate partisan, irrational dispositions. This makes "freedom" of choice an illusion.

• The so-called "public opinion" is a media creation. It is public only to the extent that it, though manufactured in private, is dinned into public consciousness. The function of public opinion is to colonise public consciousness. Opinions are swallowed, not critiqued.

• Public opinion thrives by withholding information or by unleashing a blitzkrieg of one-sided information. This makes the role of the media crucial.

Now think of a voter, crippled by the above, going into a polling booth, where the EVMs are, as the EC insists, functioning with fierce and flaming integrity. He presses a button. But has "he" voted? Is he free to choose? Was it not the case that in the 2014 elections, a certain TV channel pressed, albeit by proxy, millions of EVM buttons?

Readers cannot fail to note the significant shift effected since 2014. The crowd was pushed to the fore as never before. Elections have always involved, and will continue to involve, the mobilisation of the people. But what we saw in 2014 was a different phenomenon altogether. We watched "We the People" morphing into "We the Masses".

Masses don't think. They function by emotions and sentiments. If democracy involves nothing more, it will become a stage for unscrupulous demagogues, who need only to master the art of manipulating the masses. What does it matter then if EVMs favour - as an instance merely of the 'malice of the inanimate' - this party or that?

(The writer is former principal, St Stephen's College, Delhi)

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