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US Capitol Riots Show How EVM Conspiracy Theories Could Push India to Brink

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the US Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the US Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Over the last few years, numerous opposition politicians have made allegations against EVMs, which have been played up by sections of media and civil society. First, it should be clear that these allegations are absurd on their face.

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Abhishek Banerjee

This week, an unruly mob of hundreds of people stormed the US Capitol building in Washington DC. Deadly violence followed, in which five people were killed. America was left shocked and embarrassed, while the rest of the world was left stunned. Nobody had expected this to happen in the world's oldest democracy.

So why did it happen?

Everyone is blaming President Trump and quite fairly so. He knew he had lost the election nearly two months ago. The only right course would have been to concede the election, congratulate his opponent and pave the way for a peaceful transition of power. But Trump did not listen to reason. He kept pushing bizarre theories of election fraud all over the place. And ultimately, it drove a section of his supporters to the brink. The result: five lives lost, irreparable damage to his own legacy and the reputation of his country.

What lessons do we have for India? We get to see that those who are running a sustained misinformation campaign against the integrity of Indian elections are playing with fire. Over the last few years, numerous opposition politicians have made allegations against EVMs, which have been played up by sections of media and civil society.

First, it should be clear that these allegations are absurd on their face.

The Aam Aadmi Party, for instance, won two successive landslide victories in Delhi. In between, it lost the municipal polls in Delhi in 2017, which they blamed on EVMs. In December 2018, the Congress party blamed ‘tampered EVMs’ for its loss in Telangana. They did not appear to notice that they had won three state elections on the same day, in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh. This would be comical if it were not so dangerous for democracy. Most recently, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) made a number of allegations after losing in Bihar. Both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party have also made similar allegations in the past.

Second, political parties know well, much more than the general public, that it is near impossible to steal elections in India today. It is political party representatives who are present at each stage of the electoral process, from the checking of EVMs to the placement of symbols on the machine, sealing and unsealing the EVMs and finally the counting of votes. It is political party workers who camp outside the strong rooms where the EVMs are stored before counting. In an age of smartphone cameras, anyone trying to tamper with the process would be caught immediately. No wonder then that when the Election Commission organized a 'hackathon' for the EVM, no party showed up to the challenge.

Few people know that in March 2020, a high-level parliamentary panel validated the functioning of EVMs. No opposition MP on the panel, including those from BSP and TMC, filed any dissent note.

In public, however, the allegations have continued unabated. Frustrated by repeated election defeats, many parties have turned to EVM conspiracy theories as a convenient alibi, to save face before their voters and party workers. This emotional crutch prevents those same parties from standing up and giving India the spirited opposition it needs. This also leaves voters of opposition parties feeling disenfranchised. Both are dangerous.

In the last couple of years, we have seen a peculiar kind of protest, which has suddenly become repetitive. A small number of citizens, but highly driven and with a large amount of fury, wishing to 'occupy' our streets. These people seem to feel disenfranchised in a way never seen before. Perhaps these people feel that they are no longer being heard in the traditional way, at the voting booth. Is the relentless propaganda about "EVM tampering" and "undeclared emergency" beginning to take its toll?

These protests have plunged our cities, particularly the capital, into chaos. They have caused untold suffering to the protesters themselves and other citizens around them. They have damaged our economy and our standing in the world. What happens when this irresponsible conspiracy theory pushes people to a breaking point? A boiling point perhaps?

So far, Indian democracy has seen a relatively smooth ride. Voter turnout has generally been creeping up over the last decade and half. It shows that the vast majority reject EVM tampering theories. But our population is massive. And you don't really need that many people to cause violence. A tiny minority, fired up by constant whispers of election fraud, could easily try to take matters into their own hands. Would our relatively weak law enforcement be able to resist? Remember that if it could happen in the United States, it could happen anywhere. There is no room for complacency.

(The writer is a mathematician, columnist and author. Views expressed are personal.)


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