India's electronic voting machines (EVMs) are standalone and cannot be tampered with or manipulated in any manner, said chief election commissioner OP Rawat, adding that blaming of EVMs by some political parties appears to be a convenient political ploy.
"We put our EVMs to challenge inviting all parties to do anything but nobody came," said Rawat.
Political leaders saying it is EVM which will defeat them and when they win the elections they come up with a different explanation, he said.
Watch: Chief election commissioner OP Rawat says Election Commission may club Telangana polls with 4 states
The Election Commission (EC) also said it's not ruling out the possibility of assembly elections in Telangana, along with Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Mizoram, where polls are due later this year.
"The commission is fully prepared for the upcoming state elections," added Rawat.
Edited Excerpts: Elections in four states coming up, five to be precise with the addition of Telangana how prepared is the EC?
EC starts preparing for an election much more in advance, in fact, for Lok Sabha, we started our preparations in February 2018 and for the upcoming state elections, we started in July.
Therefore, the preparedness level in all the four states is quite satisfactory. The commission itself had visited and reviewed with the district magistrates and superintendents of police (SP) and we are happy that preparation is quite satisfactory.
Is Telangana likely to be clubbed with these four states?
Our official team had visited Telangana, reviewed the preparedness level and they have to present it to the commission. We will take a view after it.
So you are not ruling it out at this point?
No, not ruling out.
Talking about discrepancies in voter's lists, the Congress recently held a press conference saying that there are 70 lakhs discrepancies in the Telangana voters list, 30 lakhs duplications as well, how do you respond to an allegation like this?
Everybody should understand the electoral roll is a fluid document. It continues to be updated regularly. Every year on January 1, voters attain eligibility after they complete the age of 18 years so that time some many revisions take place every year.
Wherever the poll is planned, special summary revision is conducted just before the poll. So, special summary revision for four states is going to conclude on September 27 and for Telangana, it will conclude on October 8.
The electoral registration officers (EROs) receives lakhs of forms for new enrolment, lakhs of forms for deletion, shifting and dead voters. The office takes a decision in a judicial manner.
So you are saying that political parties, especially the Congress is raising questions about a procedure which is already on and is not yet complete?
Yes, that is the thing. Everybody should understand the process. EROs are tracing the duplicate applications using duplication software. The process of verification and removing those duplicates is continuing.
It is not that you are unaware of?
Not just Telangana, in Madhya Pradesh, in Rajasthan, the Congress and other political players are raising questions about massive discrepancies? In fact, senior Congress leader Kamal Nath has said that according to surveys conducted there are around 60 lakh duplicate voters in the voter list. How do you see this?
In Madhya Pradesh, to be precise, there were 68 lakh duplicates. But when you apply more parameters like a name you will have 68 lakhs. When you put age it will come down to 30 lakhs. When you put father's names or husband's name it will further come down because in our country names are very few.
So, if you put Ram Bharose, you will find there are 80,000 Ram Bharose's in the country. That is where the duplicates come.
Reduplication software is a mechanical thing, it doesn't recognise people like that. So, if it is same it will throw as duplicate. Then we have to apply different parameters like ages, address, father's name, husband's name and then this number comes down.
Then we zero in all very few names which are duplicate -- like 20, 25. Then we go to each house to verify and ask that voter who has been registered somewhere else and not got his name deleted at the earlier place. We ask him about his choice of place because all other names we will delete. After that remaining names will be deleted.
How do you feel about this move by political parties and the Congress to go to court at every stage? In last one year, we have seen the Congress moving courts over VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) machines. They say that they want free and fair elections. They also question the voting process, voter lists, does this really make things difficult for the EC?
EC has to take all steps to satisfy all its stakeholders. Our stakeholders -- political parties, candidates -- must have full faith in the commission and in all the technology, equipment and poll process. Therefore, the commission takes pains to satisfy them on all counts.
When even after doing this, if there are recourses to courts, we have to defend in the courts also and that takes a lot of time because the EC is equipped with limited staffs, just about 450 people. We have to prepare, we have to audit, we have to deploy people all over the country for the general election.
Does it affect your working? Is so much of litigation is a burden?
It definitely causes a little dislocation in certain things which are time bound. The September 27 publication is time-bound but these states - Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan - were busy in handling this subject.
Therefore, I am ringing up personally every collector, every ARO and ask them to tell us where they have reached now, whether they have completed the process, whether they are lagging behind. We have to monitor everything to make sure that on September 27 they will publish.
Talking about VVPATs, there has been so much said about VVPAT machines. The Congress, the opposition, has gone to court saying that these can be tampered with. If you press a button a vote will go for a particular political party only, how do you respond to these allegations?
These allegations are totally unfounded. Our machines are standalone, cannot be tampered, and cannot be manipulated in any manner. Our administrative and security regime - the instructions how to transport these, how to store these - at every stage involving political parties and their representatives, allowing them to put their own seal on the lock and opening them in their presence, doing the mock poll in their presence, everything is done in their presence. With this kind of regime, it is impossible to tamper with any of our machines.
So, many political parties have held press conferences where they get electronic voting machines (EVM) from somewhere, they display it and then they tell you how it can be hacked.
We put our EVMs to challenge inviting all parties to do anything but nobody came. Two parties came but they also came not to meet the challenge but to learn more about EVMs.
We are putting our machines in all public places in poll going states for awareness. If any hacker or any party has any confidence of hacking or doing anything, why can't they succeed?
In Karnataka we put our machines in an art gallery, in malls and conducted polls and counted in front of people, everywhere it matched, everywhere there was no discrepancy. Bengaluru is the IT hub and where you can get even ethical hackers but nothing could happen.
Do you think this is a political ploy in order to divert attention or probably also hurt the image of the EC?
There I won't comment because it is our duty, our responsibility to satisfy all our stakeholders. Even if slightest doubt they have, we will try and do everything to put that doubt to rest.
Would you agree that when the competition is stiff, these kind of allegations come up?
That is what our experience has been. Political leaders saying it is EVM which will defeat them and when they win the elections they come up with a different explanation. They say that we would have got more votes if EVM were not there. That is showing that it is not EVMs fault, it is something they doubt amongst themselves that they are going to lose and EVM is to be blamed.
Convenient political ploy?
Yes, it appears that way.
Recently there were many political parties who made presentations before you saying let us go back to the paper ballot system, there are discrepancies in VVPATs and EVMs, we cannot trust them and therefore we have to go the paper ballot system. What would that really lead us to and is that even possible?
As far as the possibility is concerned EC is tasked with conducting elections, providing direction and control and the commission will do everything to do it.
However, going back to a system which had so many ills and so many votes were invalidated, Indian voters were maligned that these people 65 years after independence have not learnt how to vote, that kind of thing is really bad and embarrassing for us.
Booth capturing was so rampant that candidates were not talking in terms of popular vote, they were talking how many booths you capture and that used to decide the results.
Those kind of things are things of the past because of the advent of EVM. In EVM you cannot do much even if you capture the booth because it takes about 20 seconds for every vote.
So, if you have cast 900 or 1,000 votes, you will have to stay there for 20,000 seconds, that means more than five hours and in that time enforcement will come and take necessary actions. In ballot paper, it can be done in just 20 minutes.
So, if we do what the political parties are saying, then it will be taking us back into history by at least 20 years?
Yes, it will take us back in the days of muscle power. Muscle power was rampant and our laws made a provision that wherever booth capturing takes place, EC can order re-poll and countermand that election.
By making all these allegations in the last couple of months, so close to the elections, voter discrepancies, VVPATs, EVMs, let us go back to the paper ballot system, what is this really doing to the EC? Does it hurt the morale of the staff? Does it burden the system?
Election Commission's responsibility, solemn duty is to address each and every doubt political parties, politicians have in their minds and that is what we are doing, so there is absolutely no hassle for us.
The people need to now understand because at the end of the day when you make so many allegations, eventually, you will put a doubt in the minds of the voter, is that worrying you?
EC has enormous faith in the voters. We have seen even illiterate labour class voter with strong common sense. Even about abuse of money, I myself heard in one of the state polls, on voter was saying that he is getting money from everyone and he is voting according to his choice, to the best candidate.
This kind of strong common sense of a voter who is illiterate, who is very poor is having, I think we have come off age. In fact, our voters are really enlightened. So, EC has enormous faith in voters.
We are talking about EVMs, you are saying that you have tremendous faith in the voter of this country but how do you assure people and political parties that these EVMs are absolutely tamper-proof and you cannot get them in the market like political parties always say so?
Because these are manufactured by a defence and atomic energy public sector undertaking in a very secured manufacturing facility. So this cannot go out.
Number two, our administrative and security regime for these machines is so comprehensive that there is absolutely no possibility of this getting out of the system and any machine which goes out of the system is written off and can never enter back because it may have been modified and there are full-proof arrangements that this kind of machine doesn’t get into our system back.
It is not locally available?
It is not locally available.
I would like to talk to you about electoral bonds. I think when this amendment was being debated, the election commission had given its views saying that it is a retrograde step, do you also feel worried that somehow this is an opaque process, block transparency in political funding?
Not debated when this finance bill was passed and electoral bonds were introduced through this finance bill, at that time, the commission expressed all its concerns comprehensively to the government that these are the concerns, which need to be addressed before going in for rolling these bonds.
At that point of time, the government said that it is too premature because even the scheme is not finalised yet. It is only the legal amendment, which has been made. So the commission felt okay and we will revisit the whole issue after we have the scheme that it has been implemented and contribution reports from political parties have come to the commission.
So that we can take a comprehensive view as to whether our concerns, which were flagged after the finance bill was passed in 2017 are addressed comprehensively, partially or not at all.
So we will be reviewing as soon as after this month.
Experts have been saying that donation by way of electoral bonds are not required to be disclosed to EC, political parties not required to maintain a record, isn’t this worrying and isn’t this a way of probably channelising a lot of black money into elections?
That is not possible because there is KYC. Anybody who is buying these bonds has to submit KYC documents and it has to be through cheque or electronic fund transfer.
So black money won't enter through electoral bond route. However, whatever concerns we have at the outset, we had flagged at the beginning itself. Right now, it is the time to see after formulation of a scheme, implementation and contribution report whether those concerns have been addressed at all or not.
You will be reviewing the contributions and seeing if there is some sort of lack of transparency?
Certainly, the commission would make the point and we will take a call very shortly because now September 30 is approaching, we will be reviewing it sometime in October and flagging the issues.
The EC told the Supreme Court that laudatory news articles by which a political leader appeals for votes in his favour by boasting off his records and achievements should be treated as paid news – that is a very important statement. Do you think this should be a warning to both the media and political players?
Right now I would not like to comment on this because honourable Delhi High Court have passed an order on paid news and that order stands and therefore it is binding on us.
We will not go into this. However, the commission has gone to the Supreme Court with special leave petition (SLP). In case we get a stay from the court we will be able to talk about it in detail.
But paid news is something that you will be cracking down very seriously in the upcoming elections?
As soon as the legal dispensation is available to us.
Talking about the menace of fake news. How serious is it and how are you going to tackle this in the upcoming elections?
It is quite serious and the commission has already taken steps to talk to most of the social media platforms, get their commitments that during the poll process they will ensure that this kind of material is deleted from their platforms after fact checking and all those things.
In the last 48 hours, before the conclusion of the poll, they will not allow any material at all on their platform. They have very willingly agreed to that and in fact, we feel that in Karnataka election whatever steps they took proved very effective.
Lessons from Cambridge Analytica and the data harvesting scandal.
We were also worried. In the aftermath of expose and the commission took a call on all these aspects and we took steps for cyber security, protecting our data and bringing in the consciousness of cyber security among all our employees right down to the CEO and district election officer level.
It is paying us dividend that our data is secure and not much of harvesting could take place during that vulnerability period.
Talking about black money in elections, the election commission has been cracking down on the floor black money in every election but we see a larger and larger amount of black money being used in every election. Would you say that the current set of laws that we have are inadequate to deal with the problem of black money during elections?
We have a feeling that certain provisions and laws are necessary to comprehensively check the use of black money in elections and suggestions were made to the government and we hope that we will improve.
Second thing is about political parties’ expenditure, a ceiling on that. In all party meeting which was held recently, most of the parties came up with an idea that there should be a ceiling on political parties’ expenditure also. That will also be examined and we will send a proposal to the government for taking action on that. With all those legal provisions it will make a difference.
One nation, one poll – it has been debated a lot. The law commission had put out a draft paper with statements of all political parties, there were a large number of parties who were also in favour of one nation, one poll and many who questioned it as well. What do you feel about that exercise currently? Are we even close to it?
As far as concept is concerned, we have been holding one nation, one poll till 1967. In 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967 there was only one election. After that, most of the states went out of sync and, therefore, the elections were scattered.
As of now, the commission also suggested in 2015 that in case we want to go back to one nation, one poll, then we will need certain amendments in the constitution and certain amendments in the representation of People Act.
Once those amendments are in place, that means legal framework is in place, then certain logistic requirements like the number of machines required will be double, whatever is available now, will be doubled.
Second thing is the central paramilitary force, because wherever we go, in any state, everywhere parties demand that local police is in the influence of the incumbent ruling party and we want that every polling institution is manned by the central paramilitary force. So even paramilitary force will be required in large number.
Third will be polling personnel and vehicles.
So all those logistics arrangements can be arranged once legal framework is in place, and that will not take much of time.
Will it be better for the country to have one nation, one poll? Will it reduce the burden on the administration, on the security setup because we are always in election mode if you agree?
Yes. As a subjective impression, because no empirical study has been made as yet, but it appears that once the elections are held and after that you are free, that would certainly benefit the administration.
Political parties will not be continuously in a fighting mode and then the incumbent government will get time to work, to deliver administratively.
However, it requires an empirical study as to what will be the saving in terms of money, what will be the saving in terms of administrative and social benefits, what will be the impact on other aspects of political life.
Five states election this year, you have another four states going to the election next year along with the big general election. Technically is it possible to club all of them together?
No, because as long as the present legal framework is there, the commission is bound to conduct these elections and deliver a new house before the term expires of the present house.
Since this term is ending on December 15, the commission started preparing in July and will deliver new houses to all these five states before that date.
So no change for this year at all?
No change, because the law has not changed and we are driven by the law. We are created by the constitution to deliver a new house wherever the term is ending.
What about 2019, what about the four states and the general election?
That will be held on time as per the existing law.
They are all likely to happen together?
They were happening together and, therefore, it will happen together as per the existing law.
Would you admit that it would require huge political consensus as well? A consensus among all political parties to have one nation, one poll?
Amendment to the constitution will also require that kind of support and therefore any such radical change in the polling process will require most of the parties onboard and that will be better for the country also.
The debate is going on and it is a healthy debate. So let us hope that something positive will come out of it.
People should start thinking about it seriously if we have to improve governance?