Assembly elections in the States of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and the Union Territory of Puducherry to be held between 27 March and 29 April come at a time the prestigious US-based Freedom House report has lowered India’s rank from a “free” to a “partially free” country and Sweden’s V-Dem Institute which once described India as the world’s largest democracy as an “electoral autocracy.”

The government can either look inwards and explore the causes of this decline in standards of democracy or brazen it out as it has done in the case of defending the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

The BJP’s unrelenting pursuit of capturing power in West Bengal where it won only three seats in 2016 and in Puducherry where it drew a blank, and make its presence felt in Tamil Nadu where it has no presence at all, has cast a huge burden on the Election Commission of India. The Supreme Court of India, in a landmark judgment, had placed the ECI and its head among the most important “institutions of integrity.”

India’s greatest pride is that it is not only the world’s largest democracy, but it has also been able to hold country-wide elections at regular intervals on an unprecedented scale, unlike many other newly independent countries.

The ECI’s conduct of the 2019 Lok Sabha election had led to doubts about its fairness which had been its greatest strength. The Association for Democratic Reforms, Constitutional Conduct Group formed by formal civil servants and the Forum for Electoral Integrity had brought to the attention of the ECI its shortcomings and failure to live up to its mandate of neutrality.

The Model Code of Conduct was violated with impunity by one section and the ECI remained a silent spectator. The Citizens’ Commission on Elections had gone into critical aspects of the conduct of the election and released its findings.

The current Assembly elections are being watched keenly not only by all political parties in the country but also by freedom loving people across the world. Every step of the ECI is being watched.

West Bengal Chief Minister and leader of the ruling All-India Trinamool Congress Mamata Banerjee, fighting the mighty BJP, has written to Sunil Arora, Chief Election Commissioner, expressing her apprehension that election in West Bengal will not be free and fair. Pointing out the report of the Citizen’s Commission on Elections chaired by Madan Lokur, former Justice of the Supreme Court, that EVMs are not as inviolable as being propagated, she put forward four demands to ensure integrity of the polls.

(i) Hundred per cent counting of VVPAT slips to tally with the votes counted on the EVMs.

(ii) The timers of VVPAT machines should be reset from seven seconds to 15 seconds to ensure that voters get adequate time to examine the candidate’s name that appears on display.

(iii) Both counting processes run simultaneously on separate tables so that there is no holdup in declaration of results.

(iv) These changes should be notified immediately so that adequate arrangements can be made for additional counting tables.

Counting of VVPAT slips would certainly enhance transparency and credibility of the electoral system. Instead of accepting or rejecting these demands endorsed by most non-BJP political parties, the ECI replied, “The Election Commission of India has always been committed to ensuring free, fair, transparent, robust and ethical elections.”

The Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) was incorporated in Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in the light of the requirement of verifiability and transparency. There can be no compromise allowing for error or misrepresentation of the elector’s choice.

The VVPAT protocol is to allow the voter to approve the VVPAT slip before the vote is cast and to provide an option to cancel the vote if a discrepancy is noticed. Seven seconds allotted to each voter to verify the vote is too short a time. The ECI’s VVPAT system does not allow the voter to cancel the vote if a discrepancy is noticed.

There must be sufficient guarantees against extra injection or deletion of votes after polling and before counting when the EVMs and VVPATs are in the custody of the ECI. There must be a post-election audit of the EVM counts against manual counting of the VVPAT slips. There is no clear protocol for dispute resolution if a voter complains that a VVPAT printout is incorrect, as there is no provision to repudiate a cast vote. Also, there is no guarantee that every VVPAT slip that is counted has been verified by a legitimate voter, or that every voter-verified slip is counted. In the last Lok Sabha election, there were discrepancies in the voter turnout and votes polled on the EVMs in more than 370 constituencies. The ECI has no explanation for this discrepancy. When challenged in court, the ECI pulled down the data from its website.

After the final vote was cast in the last Lok Sabha election, there were video reports from more than 10 places of new EVMs being moved into strong rooms, that too in vans with no number plates.

The ECI explained these were reserve EVMs. What was the need to move them just before the counting day? There were no security officers escorting these vans as required by the EC rules. According to the schedule of the current Assembly elections, 30 constituencies in West Bengal go to the polls on 27 March. The voting machines are going to be stored in strong rooms for 36 days before counting takes place. Such long delays are worrisome.

Faced with massive discrepancies between the votes polled and the votes counted in the last Lok Sabha election, the Association for Democratic Reforms and the Common Cause had filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court.

It stated that although the result for all the constituencies were declared by the EC on 23 May 2019, the EC itself admitted on 1 June 2019 that the Index forms of all 542 constituencies were expected to reach the Commission from the Returning Officers shortly, thereby admitting that up to 1 June the EC had not received the data and that the declaration of the results was not based on the recorded data by the Returning Officers.

This is a serious flaw that questions the integrity of the election. No one seems to know when the apex court will take up the petition for hearing. In a functioning democracy the voting process should be transparent in a manner that the general public can be satisfied that their vote is correctly recorded and counted. The present EVM system is not verifiable and therefore is unfit for democratic elections.

The five Assemblies going to the polls now have a total of 824 seats of which the BJP bagged 64 in the 2016 election. In West Bengal, its tally was just three in the 294-member Assembly. Nevertheless, BJP leaders are confident the party will form the new West Bengal government.

What gives them this confidence? Although the ECI is an autonomous institution drawing its powers from the Constitution, of late it has been kowtowing before the political executive. Under such a dispensation anything is possible such as reducing Sikkim Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang Golay’s period of disqualification from contesting elections by almost five years under the provision of the electoral law, by using its discretionary powers.

The EC’s decision came just two days after Golay’s Sikkim Krantikari Morcha, which won a majority in the Assembly election, entered into an electoral alliance with the BJP. Many such instances are brought out by the second report of Citizen’s Commission on Elections.